For the last five seasons guard Joe Andruzzi was a mainstay on the New England offensive line. But now that the former undrafted free agent and NFL Europe player has moved on to join Romeo Crennel with the Cleveland Browns a hole has opened up on offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's unit. The departure may be felt more in terms of a loss in leadership than it will be in the starting lineup that takes the field on Sundays this fall.
]()On the field and in the locker room Andruzzi was the unquestioned, hard working, blue collar constant who helped will a unit that probably wasn't as talented as many in the NFL into one that paved the way for three Super Bowl titles in four seasons. How the remaining members of that group in New England responds to the loss of its leader in the locker room and fills the void on the field will go a long way toward the offense's overall success in 2005.
New England heads into training camp with 14 offensive linemen listed on the roster. Aside from the loss of Andruzzi, the group includes the four other starters that finished out the 2004 campaign in left tackle Matt Light, center Dan Koppen, right guard Stephen Neal and right tackle Brandon Gorin.
Considering the contract extension he signed last fall and the fact that the former second-round pick is now the longest-tenured member of the group, Light is a likely candidate to take over as the leader on the line. Koppen and Neal, who has steadily developed into a dominating run blocker, are also virtual locks to retain their jobs in 2005.
While Gorin returns at the right tackle spot, fellow returning veteran Tom Ashworth took most of the reps at the position during the team's mini-camp. Ashworth was the starter on the right side in 2003 and in the early part of last season before going on injured reserve with a back injury. Ashworth said this spring that he is now totally recovered from surgery and is probably the frontrunner to once again win the job protecting Tom Brady on the right side.
In replacing Andruzzi at left guard the competition could be a bit tighter. First-round pick Logan Mankins, third-round pick Nick Kaczur, returning veteran and former starter Russ Hochstein and third-year player Gene Mruczkowski could all be candidates, and it is even likely that more than one of the players could find their way into the lineup during the long season. Mankins took many of the reps between Light and Koppen with the first unit during mini-camp, as the former Fresno State left tackle learns the guard spot at the NFL level. Kaczur was also a tackle at Toledo and has the flexibility to move at the NFL level, but may have to work on his upper body strength in order to face the higher level of competition on Sundays. Mruczkowski now has more than two years in the New England system and could be the next member of the Patriots line to go from undrafted player to contributor under Scarnecchia's tutelage.
The battle for the rest of the roster spots could be tight along the line, a spot where New England kept nine players to start last season (veteran guard Bob Hallen actually survived final roster cuts last preseason as the 10th linemen, but was cut in the week leading up to the season opener and was replaced by running back Rabih Abdullah on the roster). The rest of the mix at guard includes former Bears practice squader Bryan Anderson, UConn undrafted free agent Ryan Krug and 2005 New England practice squad player Billy Yates. The group of lesser-known tackles includes fourth-year veteran Victor Leyva and Jeff Roehl.
]()Beyond the starting five, including the possible two openings there, the battle for the final roster spots if often as much about versatility as talent. If Mruczkowski can't win the left guard spot, for example, his ability to play all three interior spots will go a long way in his keeping a job in New England. The versatility of the two draft picks to play both guard and tackle should also add strength to the overall unit, although they must first prove their abilities to compete at this level through preseason action.
And as is usually the case one of the lesser-known offensive linemen, a somewhat redundant statement in its own right, will likely earn a roster spot through the behind-the-scenes work and meeting time that is such a key part of New England's offensive line development program.
Watching offensive line play in the training camp might not be the focus of many fans in attendance at the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium this summer, but the work done in the trenches by some of the new faces in that practice action will probably go a long way towards the team's success this fall. Working to replace Andruzzi while continuing to create running lanes for Corey Dillon and time for Brady to pass are just a few of the things Scarnecchia's starting five must do in serving as the foundation upon which New England's offensive output is built.