The line on Mankins: He'll be ready to play
Guard Logan Mankins (left) earned high praise as a rookie from Bill Belichick. He continued to get better every day, the coach said. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)
FOXBOROUGH -- By the end of the week, familiar sounds will be heard on the football practice fields behind Gillette Stadium. Crackling shoulder pads. Demanding coaches barking orders. Grunts and groans of sweat-soaked players preparing for another NFL season.
Training camp opens Friday, and Logan Mankins, the Patriots' 2005 first-round draft choice (32d overall), experienced it all for the first time last year. His lasting impression? Mainly that the mental challenge can be as demanding as the physical side.
``Last year, the beginning was rough because you're having all these things thrown at you," he said. ``You really have to learn on the fly."
Mankins weathered those early challenges and became one of the NFL's most productive rookies, starting all 16 regular-season games. That put him in select company. Of the 32 first-round draft picks last year, only three -- Mankins, Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, and Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson -- started all 16 contests.
The Patriots would be thrilled to receive similar production from any of this year's rookie class, which is headlined by running back Laurence Maroney (first round) and receiver Chad Jackson (second round). Coach Bill Belichick said Mankins's rookie approach is a good example for any newcomer -- he started by showing up in good physical condition and fully accepted coaching from assistant Dante Scarnecchia and teammates.
``He continued to get better every day. It wasn't perfect, but he didn't make the same mistakes twice," Belichick said. ``He learned from things that happened and improved them and got better the next practice. That's really what a rookie has to do. You can't get it all in one day. You can't master it in two weeks of training camp."
Mankins went wire to wire in 2005. After signing a five-year contract and reporting to camp on time, he was working as the first-team left guard on the first day of practice. He never relinquished the position, opening his career by facing Raiders defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Ted Washington (now with the Browns) and finishing with one of his tougher challenges, against Denver's Trevor Pryce in the playoffs.
Like many rookies, he experienced some culture shock.
``It was pretty different, because here you are going against guys you watched on TV when you were in high school, guys that went to Pro Bowls and are great players in this league," Mankins said. ``You try not to think about that too much until afterward."
Further challenging Mankins's progress over the course of the year was instability to his left and right.
When Matt Light broke his fibula in a Week 3 loss to the Steelers, rookie Nick Kaczur stepped in at left tackle. Right tackle Tom Ashworth was moved to the left side for a few games as well. And when center Dan Koppen sustained a season-ending shoulder injury against the Dolphins Nov. 13, Russ Hochstein was elevated to the starting role.
Mankins nearly faced an even greater -- and unexpected -- challenge in the Patriots' playoff loss at Denver. Before the game, Mankins warmed up at left tackle because Ashworth was in the locker room feeling the effects of a virus (Ashworth ended up playing, and Mankins stayed at guard).
As he was focusing on perhaps playing a postseason game at a new position, Mankins realized the moment was reflective of the entire season. Pieces had been falling all around him, but he was determined to keep his head down, plowing ahead in what he termed ``a pretty weird year."
In the final analysis, though, it was an extremely productive year for a rookie.
Said Belichick: ``It's a long process, there are a lot of snaps and a lot of different things that can happen on any play, so what a good, young player will do is absorb it, be like a sponge and soak all that up. Sooner or later, when that situation comes up again -- it might be a week, or a month, or half a season later -- he'll know what to do. He's seen it and will know how to execute it. That's kind of what Logan did, and that's to his credit."
That's not to say Mankins didn't have his rough spots. He felt he didn't play well in the team's second, third, and fourth games, then was ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct in an Oct. 16 contest at Denver. But toward the end of the season, he felt he was finding a groove, showing the toughness and athleticism required of guards in the Patriots' offensive system, which calls for interior linemen to get upfield on a wide array of screen pass plays and zone blocking assignments.
Mankins is focused on carrying over momentum from his first year, and some off-field changes have helped. He said he feels ``way more comfortable" in his surroundings, partially because he and his fiancee have settled in a suburban neighborhood where their children have made new friends. It's considerably different from his roots in Catheys Valley, Calif., where he grew up on a 10,000-acre cattle ranch.
Mankins also said he's found a level of comfort with his fellow linemen, whom he calls ``a good group of guys that gets along really well." He's become particularly close with Hochstein, with whom he shares similar small-town roots.
Mankins realizes the time for those games will be limited in the coming weeks, the hours instead filled with training camp work that is demanding physically and mentally. He wonders where the last six months have gone.
``The offseason," Mankins said, ``has flown by."
REISS'S PIECES: Mike Reiss takes a daily snapshot at each position heading into Patriots camp. Go to www.boston.com/reiss