There is one glaring positive about the 2001 Patriots offensive line. That is, of course, that it can't possibly be any worse than it has been the last two seasons when starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sacked a combined 100 times, including 45 last season.
Give Bill Belichick credit here. As a defensive coach within the AFC East, he was keenly aware that the Patriots offensive front five wasn't good enough to get the job done. Then to make matters worse, his linemen dropped like flies in the 2000 preseason, forcing the team to cancel a scrimmage against the Giants.
But he began addressing the line upon his arrival. He signed free agent tackle Grant Williams and then signed Raven reserve tackle Spencer Folau to a restricted free agent offer sheet that was matched by Baltimore.
On draft day, two of his first three picks went on tackles Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall — two players that Belichick hopes will make him look like a prophet this year.
But he wasn't done tweaking as he added Joe Andruzzi and Sale Isaia off the street the week before the season opener. That pair combined to start 25 games, an indication that the cupboard in New England was bare.
In this past offseason, the moves continued with the free agent acquisitions of Mike Compton and Joe Panos along with the draft day selections of Matt Light and Kenyatta Jones. Now it's time to pick five starters and let them play together until they know everything about each other.
The play of the offensive line is so vital to any offensive resurgence this team might have that Belichick might be well served to pick his five starters and put them all in one room during training camp.
OK, let's not go crazy. That could be ugly.
But this revamped offensive line simply has to be better than last year's. No one is ready to put this group up against the league's best, but if everything falls into place, this could be the league's most improved.
At center, Damien Woody remains solid, but his biggest problem is that he is an excellent player without going the extra mile. He seems satisfied being good, but not willing to put forth the additional effort it would take to put him at a Pro Bowl level.
Perhaps the most obvious example of that is his inability to execute something as fundamental as the shotgun snap. If his struggles in that area continue after an offseason to work on the problem, he will face wide criticism and be forced to answer questions about that work ethic.
Moving out from the center spot, Andruzzi will fight an uphill battle to retain his starting guard spot with the addition of Compton and Panos, both more accomplished players. Andruzzi came around last year to play well, but if Panos can stay healthy, he is likely to be the right guard.
Panos started for both Philadelphia and Buffalo, but suffered a severe neck injury in 1999 and had a disk replaced by a bone from his hip. He missed that entire year and rotated with Jamie Nails last year.
Compton, like Panos, is a player who brings the toughness this group lacked. He comes to New England from the Black and Blue Division (NFC Central) where he regularly played against the likes of Warren Sapp and John Randle. Look for Compton to make a sizable difference up front on a group starving for leadership.
Their experience will be magnified by the youngsters they will guide on the outside if Klemm and Robinson-Randall finish training camp as the starting tackles.
Klemm's role as the left tackle is obviously vital because he will be assigned to protect Bledsoe's blind side. He came out of a run-and-shoot college offense with his strength being pass protection. After missing much of last year with a knee injury, he will be thrown to the fire this year after a strong offseason.
Robinson-Randall is a no-nonsense lineman who has work to do protecting the quarterback. He is more of a straight ahead run blocker and will be challenged often as more teams send speed rushers off the left defensive edge. If those two second-year linemen make a smooth transition, the offense as a whole could be much improved.
Tackle Grant Williams and center/guard Grey Ruegamer may offer the most serious challenge for the additional roster spots along with rookies Matt Light and Kenyatta Jones. Williams did start eight games at right tackle last year and is a smart player. Ruegamer never found his niche in Miami, but has the attitude you like in an offensive lineman.
Light may be the closest to starting among the group despite coming in as a rookie from Purdue. He is another tough player with the typical offensive lineman mentality. Jones is more of a developmental player with the potential to make his mark down the road.
The rest of the line hopefuls are led by Adam Davis, who made last year's opening day roster before spending much of the season on the practice squad; and Josh Rawlings, who had an excellent spring playing in NFL Europe and was on the Patriots roster at the end of last year.
The group is rounded out by Brown University standout Drew Inzer, Terrance Beadles and Rob Gatrell. Beadles spent last year on injured reserve and didn't help himself when he got nicked up in a recent mini-camp. Gatrell spent last year on the practice squad.
The key to the success of this group is three-fold. First, it must remain healthy so that bodies don't have to be shuffled in and out of the lineup. Second, the young tackles must play well. And finally, the group must gel quickly and keep the mental mistakes to a minimum. If those things happen, this group may surprise observers.
(2) Joe Andruzzi, Damien Woody
(8) Terrance Beadles, Adam Davis, Rob Gatrell, Adrian Klemm, Josh Rawlings, Greg Robinson-Randall, Grey Ruegamer, Grant Williams
(4) Mike Compton (UFA-Detroit), Kenyatta Jones (R), Matt Light (R), Joe Panos (UFA-Buffalo)
(3) Bruce Armstrong, Sale Isaia, Max Lane
Key 2000 Stat:
The Patriots allowed 48 sacks while using four different starters at right tackle, and three different starters at left guard.
Can inexperienced Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall adequately man the tackle positions?
This group must protect Drew Bledsoe for the Patriots to have any chance to win.
Bledsoe has never started a game without Bruce Armstrong lined up at left tackle.
- Mike Compton - LG
- Adrian Klemm - LT
- Joe Panos - RG
- Greg Robinson-Randall - RT
- Damien Woody - C