As the dust and emotion settle a day after the surprising Logan Mankins trade, it makes sense to turn the page toward what the remaining New England offensive line could look like this fall.
Clearly, the Patriots will not be able to field a player with a Pro Bowl resume to fill the left guard spot that Mankins has held down since he was drafted in the first round in 2005. You don't just roll out another All-Pro.
But, there are plenty of options that Bill Belichick and first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo have at their disposal, not just for the left guard spot but for the entirety of what will be a new-look interior line.
New England utilized a variety of combinations along the interior line this summer in preseason and training camp action. While initially that was seen as work focused on finding the best fit for the center and right guard spot, the flexibility now plays a role in filling Mankins' left guard hole as well.
So here is a rundown of all the candidates with a legitimate chance to start on the interior of the offensive line in the wake of the Mankins trade:
Ryan Wendell – Wendell started all 16 games at center over the last two seasons. He then re-signed with New England as a free agent this spring, inking a two-year deal with a maximum value of $4.55 million and an $850,000 signing bonus. He's been a functional part of the line, but certainly hasn't been a dominant center. Wendell has seen a lot of backup reps this summer on the practice field and preseason, but seeing him slide right back into the starting lineup wouldn't be hard to envision. His one downside is that he's almost exclusively a center, lacking the position flexibility that most of the other players in question bring to the table.
Dan Connolly – Connolly has been a starter for New England dating back to 2010 when he filled in at guard for both Mankins and Stephen Neal. He started at center replacing Dan Koppen in 2011. Connolly certainly has great versatility up front but has had his tough matchups at times over the years. Connolly is in the final year of his contract, with a cap number of just more than $4 million that ranks eighth on the team at this point. He certainly has the experience and potential to start at any of the three interior line spots, but has spent a good chunk of the summer working at center with the top group.
Marcus Cannon – The former fifth-round pick Cannon has played mostly tackle in his three seasons in New England. He started the final six games at right tackle last fall, proving himself a more than capable fill-in for an injured Sebastian Vollmer. Many have theorized that Cannon could have a future at guard and he's seen an increase in reps at that spot this summer.
Josh Kline – Kline is a former practice squader who has seen a lot of action with the top unit at guard this summer and has also taken other reps at tackle as well as in an extra tight end role. Kline made his first and only NFL start late last season against Baltimore, but is clearly a developmental type that the team likes.
Jordan Devey – Devey spent last season on the Patriots practice squad. The former undrafted rookie out of Memphis saw a ton of action this summer, including starts in two of the first three preseason games. Devey is a versatile type who played both guard and tackle in college, as he's done this summer in New England. Devey is another developmental type in line for playing time consideration.
Bryan Stork – Stork was a fourth-round pick as the top center in college football last fall. After getting interesting reps in the spring, he missed a lot of time in training camp with an unknown injury. Though he's clearly a talented prospect, it might be hard for him to make up for the missed time at this point given his limited practice and lack of preseason action.
Jon Halapio – A sixth-round pick out of Florida, Halapio started 43 of his 51 games for the Gators. He's gotten primarily backup reps throughout the summer in practice, much of that coming at right guard. He seems to be in the mix for a backup job but not a likely candidate for starting action at this early point in his development.
Cameron Fleming – Fleming was a pure right tackle at Stanford and spent most of his summer in New England working out at that spot. But he did see a few reps at guard and that might make him a longshot candidate for playing time on the inside. Fleming is seemingly a lock to make the team in a backup role, probably at tackle, but can't be ruled out at guard in a pinch.
Based on all the different groupings and rotational reps we saw on the interior line this summer, it's hard to project what Belichick and DeGuglielmo are thinking in terms of a starting lineup for opening day in Miami. But based on everything seen so far, and the skills of the players in question, it would seem that the most likely and talented combination might be Kline at left guard, Connolly at center and Cannon at right guard, assuming Vollmer is healthy and ready to go at right tackle. This might be the best mix of experience, youth and potential from the candidates. But really, with Mankins gone, the three interior line spots are a major question mark heading into September. Only time, and Belichick, will tell us what's in store for the three men who'll line up in front of Tom Brady in Miami.
What do you think of the situation on the interior offensive line for the Patriots? Who do you think should start? Let us know with a comment below!