As we head closer to the start of free agency I would like to take a look at each of the offensive and defensive units for the Patriots, with an eye on what may players are (and are not) likely to return, free agent decisions to be made, and possible additions to the unit, whether it be other team’s free agents or through the draft.
While most of the discussion regarding the offensive line has centered on what the Pats may do regarding free agents Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen, the key is Brian Waters return. Waters – the team’s best offensive lineman in 2011 – has stated that he will take two to three weeks to decide whether he will retire. While he has certainly earned that right, it does put the Patriots in a bit of a bind, as his decision has a bit of a domino effect on the rest of the line.
Fortunately for the Patriots free agency starts a bit later this year compared to some recent years; it kicks off March 13 whereas in years past it has more commonly been closer to March 1. This means that the Patriots should know what Waters decides to do far enough in advance where they can make a better decision on what they may want to offer Connolly and Koppen – though it does cut down the window of time to negotiate with them dramatically.
According to Football Outsiders the Pats’ offensive line ranked 2nd in the league in run blocking and 8th in pass protection. Looking closer the middle and right side of the line performed the better than the left side in the running game; depending on the gap they ranked 5th, 1st and 8th, whereas the left side ranked 9th and 14th; RG Brian Waters certainly had a lot to do with that. This is further supported by the Pats Fans Stat Database, which shows that the Pats average 4.7 yards per carry when running to the right, compared to 4.3 yards per attempt when running to the
Hopefully the physical grind – Waters played three extra games and had five more weeks of practice than the soon to be 35-year old was used to playing in Kansas City – and emotional letdown of losing a championship game will soon wear off and Waters will opt to play one more season. He was to me without a doubt the most valuable addition to the team for the 2011 season, and will be sorely missed if he should decide to retire.
If Waters does not return then the Pats could go with Koppen or Connolly at center, Connolly or Marcus Cannon at right guard, and the trio of Matt Light, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder at tackle. While that sounds like an embarrassment of riches it actually is not; the reality is that it is not a question of if an offensive linemen will miss time with injuries but rather it is a question of how many players will be injured, and how many games will they miss. A solid rotation of eight offensive lineman is not a luxury; it is a necessity in today’s NFL.
The backup center/backup guard would come down to Nick McDonald or Ryan Wendell. If all of the current players return there is really no room for a middle round draftee on the roster. A late round pick or undrafted free agent could be added and spend a year working with Dante Scarnecchia on the practice squad, then elevated to backup role in 2013 before taking over as starter the following year.
When the Pats drafted Ted Larsen a couple of years ago I envisioned him being a backup for two years and taking over in 2012, after Koppen’s contract expired, but obviously things did not work out that way. I still don’t understand why he was cut while Nick Kaczur remained on the roster, knowing that Kaczur had a major back injury; Kaczur was placed on IR just a short time later after not playing or practicing at all during that interim time period, while Larsen was long gone, scooped up by Tampa Bay immediately after being cut. With all the other positions that need to be upgraded I find it highly doubtful that the Pats would draft someone like Michael Brewster; more likely it would be a 7th round pick or undrafted free agent like Northern Illinois’ Scott Wedige or Mason Cloy out of Clemson.
Some have suggested that the Patriots could cut LT Matt Light in order to clear up some cap space, but I find that idea to be foolish. Light had an excellent year and did a great job of protecting Tom Brady’s blindside against the formidable New York Giants pass rush in the Super Bowl. While Nate Solder will eventually take over for him, as I mentioned above injuries are a reality for offensive lineman, and there is no need to reduce the depth in this vital position. Light’s 2012 cap figure is $6.5 million, but the team will take a $3 million cap hit if they cut or trade him, so the net cap saving is $3.5 million. The Pats are $20 million under the cap, and thanks to a clause in the latest CBA they can add another $6.6 million to that amount that they did not use in 2011 if they need more cap space. I cannot think of a legitimate reason to not bring Matt Light back.
Logan Mankins took a lot of heat because of a missed block in the Super Bowl, and because he makes so much money. Even if you don’t like him because he makes as much as he does, he still has the talent to be one of the best guards in the NFL (even if he didn’t show it in 2011 in general, or specifically against the Giants) – and there is no way that the Pats are better off on the line when he is not out on the field. Besides, with his contract and the way the salary cap operates, he is going to be on this team for a long time, so just get used to it. Save your hate for the Jets or some other team.
So what happens if both Koppen and Connolly leave as free agents? I realize that this may sound far-fetched, but as a one-year stop gap how about Jeff Saturday? The mutual respect between Saturday and Robert Kraft from to their working together last summer on the CBA is well documented. I am not suggesting that it will happen – I think the Pats will make sure that at least one of either Koppen or Connolly returns – but it’s an interesting ‘what if’ scenario if both leave, or if there is a training camp injury.