In line for big things
Vollmer’s versatility helps block out injury problems
FOXBOROUGH - The 58th overall pick in the NFL draft this year didn’t begin playing football until he was 14 years old.
Still, the play of Sebastian Vollmer - as well as myriad injuries - has forced the Patriots to be creative in working him into the offensive line rotation.
In their 20-10 win over Carolina last Sunday, the Patriots rotated Vollmer, Matt Light, and Nick Kaczur at left and right tackle. An offensive line may be the last place you want inconsistency, but the maneuvering seemed to please coach Bill Belichick, who said, “That was probably good for them to get a little break. It’s not often those guys [are] able to come back in and be fresh and go on those long drives.’’
Randy Cross, a
“I don’t think it’s ever real common, but it’s not exactly unheard of either, especially when you do it by necessity,’’ said Cross, who spent 13 years with San Francisco.
A knee injury to Light in the Denver game opened the door for Vollmer to see regular playing time. While Light recovered, Vollmer started the next five games - his play was so impressive some wondered how Light would be used upon his return - before he suffered a head injury against the Jets and was forced to sit two games.
Light returned while Vollmer was out against New Orleans, but last week, all three tackles were active for the first time since Oct. 11.
Vollmer’s versatility provided the Patriots with options. On the fourth series, Vollmer came in at right tackle while Light was in at left. Later, Vollmer came in at left tackle while Kaczur was in at right. In the fourth quarter, Kaczur left the game with a shoulder injury and Vollmer took over.
“On either side, it’s invaluable to have somebody with that skill set,’’ Cross said. “Most rookie players are thrilled to death to do anything . . .
“Ideally, you would have the same five start and if you were Tom Brady, you want the same guys in front of you for a decade. But, with injuries, you just don’t have that liberty. It’s not a negative thing. If you have an offensive line that goes eight deep, that’s a huge strength.’’
While the strength of the tackles gives the Patriots depth, it also poses challenges, said Mark Schlereth, an ESPN analyst who spent 12 years playing guard in the NFL.
“It’s hard,’’ he said. “I did it one year, my last year in Washington. We did it by quarters - me and John Gesek. I hated it. Gesek started the games, and I would finish, so I’d be in there in the second and fourth quarters. And we weren’t very good, so by the end of the game, we might be down 22 points and I’d have to go in there and pass protect. It’s hard for an offensive line to gain rhythm when you’re flip-flopping like that.’’
The move from one side to another may seem like a simple adjustment, but there is more to it. When looking at a draft board, Belichick said most players show more potential at one side or another. Kaczur played left tackle in college and Mark LeVoir played both right and left tackle last year. Belichick briefly put Light on the right side during his rookie season (2001), but quickly found he was more suited to play on the left.
“In layman’s terms, it’s like telling someone who writes with their right hand to do a 10-page essay writing with their left hand,’’ Schlereth said. “Everything changes. When I moved to left guard in Denver, I got pretty messed up. It took a year. And I wound up just playing with a righthanded stance out there at left guard.’’
Vollmer said he doesn’t worry about what side he is playing on. At the University of Houston, he was a left tackle, but in the NFL he has been able to be just as effective on the right.
“I’m lucky that I have a veteran group of linemen around me and we play so much together that whenever I have a question, I can rely on these guys that have played for a long time,’’ Vollmer said.
As a group, the Patriots’ offensive line has been able to protect its quarterback, allowing just 16 sacks, fourth fewest in the league. In the last three games, Brady has been sacked once.
“A quarterback is always close with the offensive linemen,’’ Brady said. “They kind of look at me as probably the kid brother that they never want to get beat up. They’re always trying to protect [me] because I can’t really protect myself back there. They take a lot of pride in whether I get hit or not and how many times we get sacked.’’
Without a set grouping, chemistry may be affected, but the depth a player such as Vollmer adds is just as valuable.
“Vollmer’s a better athlete than either of them,’’ Schlereth said. “I think he’s exceptional, so you try to find time for him. They probably think, ‘Gosh, he’s better than Light,’ the way he played against Indy and [Dwight] Freeney. And you want your best five.
“But with some of the growing pains, and the potential for injuries, you do have to ask yourself if you’re not just better with the [original] five and this guy as the swing guy. It’s invaluable to have guys versed at both spots.’’
Wherever he’s called upon to play in Buffalo, Vollmer said he keeps the same focus.
“Whenever [Belichick] calls you into action, you better be ready,’’ he said.
Albert R. Breer of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..