Settle the line. The sooner New England does so, the better off the team will be.
One key ingredient to a successful offensive line is continuity. In the past few seasons, the Patriots have seen many changes to this unit. In 2000, there were four different starters at right tackle, three at left guard and two at right guard.
The year before, New England used a three-man guard rotation with Todd Rucci, Heath Irwin and Max Lane. The last time the Patriots reached the postseason, they managed to have the same starting five for the first 10 weeks of the season before a knee injury to Zefross Moss forced the team to make adjustments.
Newly acquired guard Mike Compton knows firsthand the importance of familiarity with the man next to him. Injuries decimated the Detroit line in 2000 and forced Compton to move back and forth from center to guard in effort to stabilize the unit.
"I think that exposes your offense's weaknesses," Compton said earlier this offseason. "You look at any team in the past that has had a great offensive line, such as the Washington Redskins back in the '80s with the Hogs, those were five guys in there at the same positions week in and week out. If you want to build a good offensive line, you have to surround what you already have with good people. You have to get a corps group of players, whether it is five guys or 10 guys, and let them work together from Day One.
"It's hard to get the timing down with the guy you are going to play next to every week, but it's two times as hard trying to get that timing with somebody who has never been in there before. You have to keep a corps of five guys and make a commitment to those five guys."
That commitment may be tough initially for the Patriots, given then number of young linemen who will hopefully provide years of protection in New England. Experience along the line is limited to a handful of players. Of the 15 linemen on the roster, 10 have less than a full season of starts under their belt.
Many of those youngsters are strong candidates to start this year, with center Damien Woody the only starter from 2000 likely to return to the first unit. Compton and fellow free agent veteran Joe Panos, second-year tackles Adrian Klemm and Greg Robinson-Randall and rookie Matt Light are leading candidates for the line. Also figuring in the mix are tackle Grant Williams and guard Joe Andruzzi, both of whom started much of last year, and rookie Kenyatta Jones.
Regardless of which five emerge, the line has to develop an attitude from the get go.
"I think as soon as you realize you are listed No. 1 on the depth chart, you get out there and it's time to go, whether you are a rookie, second-year guy or 10-year veteran," Compton said. "When you are in that first group, it's time to snap on your helmet and go to work.
"If somebody gets hurt, you need to have a willingness and trust that his backup is going to get the job done. If one guy goes out, don't make three new changes to fill one spot. If you are going to have a good offensive line and running game, you have to have a corps of five guys where you say anytime one of them is in there, the other four are in there. Those guys need to eat, sleep and practice together. That just brings out the closeness and the "gel" that bonds the linemen."
With the youth movement likely to occur sooner than later, Compton feels there should be some patience with the line in the early going.
"Sure, everyone is going to make mistakes," Compton said. "The main thing is, over the course of training camp through the end of the season, slowly reducing those mistakes. A lot of that comes from the preparation you do during the week. It's knowing your plays, your blocking assignments, your calls and knowing your opponents.
"Hopefully people like myself and Joe Panos can help the young guys out with that stuff. Hopefully we can go out there on Sundays and just let them listen for the snap count and let their confidence come out and take over. People can't hold younger guys accountable the same way you would an older guy because they haven't had that experience. The confidence for the players starts with the coaches and teammates who, when a young guy makes a mistake, they say, 'You messed up, but we're still behind you. Just do it next time.'"