OL Sebastian Vollmer
Change is a major part of life managing an NFL team. Bill Belichickoften preaches that every year, every team is very different. But at least in terms of life in the trenches in New England, things have been almost miraculously continuous for the Patriots in recent years.
Offensively New England hit training camp returning all five starters on the line as well as the full slate of experienced backups who've filled in or made spot starts in recent years. That includes Pro Bowlers Matt Light, Logan Mankinsand Dan Koppen as well as Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur. It's also guys like interior backups Russ Hochstein (20 starts in seven seasons in New England) and Billy Yates (11 starts over the last three seasons). At tackle Ryan O'Callaghan, Wesley Brittand Mark LeVoir(PUP) all return to battle for roles, all having started at some point in New England.
It gives position coach Dante Scarnecchia an extremely knowledgeable, experienced group competing things out on the practice fields this summer at a position where the search for continuity is almost as important as the search for talent.
"I think it's great when you have a core group of guys that's been together as long as we have. Up front we've seen each other's ugly mugs for a long time now," Light said. "It's great to be able to depend on the guys around you and be able to move forward rather quickly at the initial point in camp where a lot of times you are trying to get guys on the same page and relearn things over and over again. It's great to have the same guys here pulling in the same direction."
The story is similar along the defensive line. While Ty Warren opened camp on PUP and Richard Seymour has missed significant time to an undisclosed injury, both are expected to return to their starting spots this season sandwiched around nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The trio of first rounders is once again backed up by Jarvis Green and Mike Wright, who spurned free agency to re-sign in New England this offseason. Even lesser-known backups like Titus Adams (2008 practice squad) and Le Kevin Smith (31 games played in two seasons) have been around the team for a while.
"I think that's an advantage for us," said the versatile Wright. "Just being able to play with the guys for that long you get used to playing around each other and you kind of play off each other's play. I think that makes us a better team all in one."
If continuity builds a better team, so too does competition. Despite all the returning faces, there's clearly a good deal of battling going on along both lines this summer. With Light, Neal, Seymour and Warren all missing significant time in camp, some new faces rather than the old-standby backups have gotten chances to shine.
Second-round pick Sebastian "Sea Bass" Vollmerhas taken advantage of Light's time off by stepping into the top group. He already has the tough-to-impress Belichick, of all people, raving about his makeup and potential, at least early on, to play both tackle spots.
First-year former practice squad player Ryan Wendell has filled in for Neal at times, while also getting a variety of reps at both guard and center. Much like Hochstein and Yates did in the past, Wendell could very well be working his way through the offensive line development program in New England with an eye on a roster spot.
Like those two veterans before him, he's not overly eager to talk about any such possibilities.
"They said to make the team we have to be able to play more than one position. So they just keep moving us around and I'm just trying to do my best," Wendell said matter-of-factly of his bouncing around to different spots and between groups. "I have to be comfortable with it. I can't tell them I'm not, you know.
"Those guys ahead of me give me a good example of what I'm supposed to play like."
The story is similar up front defensively. As usual, Wright has bounced between both tackle and end at various times, but its another 2009 second-round pick, Ron Brace, who seems to most be taking advantage of the early opportunities afforded by the veteran absences. The tackle out of Boston College has seen reps at both tackle and end in some three- and four-man fronts. He's simultaneously getting a crash course in the New England scheme and a great chance to carve out a role for himself. And people are noticing.
"I think everybody that's come in has done a great job. From my point of view I've watched Ron Brace a lot and he's just a powerful man," Wright said. "He's hungry to get out there and play and make some plays. He's in a great position to learn from all of us veterans that have been around and that's going to do nothing but help him.
"They're putting him everywhere because as a rookie you are trying to do anything. He's so big and strong he can do whatever he wants."
At this point Belichick would seem to have options with his depth chart. Go with the known commodities, new faces or a mix of the two? Either way, theoretically, the Patriots win. If the young guys play their way not only onto the roster but also into contributing roles for the 2009 team, it'll be because they earned it. If they don't, New England returns impressive top-end talent and experienced backups on both sides of the line of scrimmage that's worked cohesively with impressive results for years.
"I think it's nothing but an advantage for us with guys like that coming in and going to take part in the party," Wright said of the competition building between the returning players and the new faces trying to get noticed. "It's great for them. It's great for the other guys. It's great for us."
Continuity is good. Fresh blood is good. A combination of the two may be even better. It's a win-win situation for a team expected to do a lot of that this fall.