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10 Questions: Can the line make it without Mankins?

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff  July 5, 2010 08:00 AM

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Part 2 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...

The question: Is the offensive line good enough if Logan Mankins is gone?

Three factors: Nick Kaczur's ability to change positions; Will Matt Light and Sebastian Vollmer be the starting tackles; Stephen Neal's durability

Finding the answer: Whether he's traded away or simply stays away until Week 10, it seems highly unlikely the Pats' two-time Pro Bowl left guard will be in the spot he's occupied since the day he was drafted in 2005. Mankins was one of the players unfortunately impacted by the change in restricted and unrestricted free agent rules, and his future with the team has become murky (to put it mildly) thanks to his contract status.

As of right now, Mankins is the most talented member of what has been the Patriots' starting five. Matt Light and Stephen Neal are getting up there in age (Neal contemplated retirement this offseason before re-signing with New England), and Neal has averaged just 12 games per season over the last four years though he is a highly effective run blocker when healthy. Dan Koppen seems to be pushed off the ball more and more frequently, and Nick Kaczur would never be considered one of the best in the league at right tackle.

Second-year tackle Sebastian Vollmer appears to be the future, though this year he may be at right tackle, not left because of Light's presence. Bill Belichick has said several times that trying Light on the right side of the line early in his career did not last long, so flipping him seems unlikely.

During spring camps, it was Kaczur who was working at left guard in Mankins' absence. Another option could be the versatile Dan Connolly, who performed ably when called upon last year; New England also has Rich Ohrnberger, a low-round pick last year, in the pipeline at guard.

The key in all of this - as has been the case for much of the last decade - is the presence of coach Dante Scarnecchia. The sage Scarnecchia is a maestro at getting his linemen to work together and coaching up players; by now it is safe to assume that if a lineman can't succeed under Scarnecchia's tutelage, he won't succeed anywhere. After all, this is a team that won Super Bowls with players like Brandon Gorin, Tom Ashworth and Mike Compton as starting linemen.

If Kaczur's move works out (and not having to be responsible for the edge may help him) and Neal can stay healthy, the line should survive. However, one of the things Mankins is known for is his nasty demeanor in the trenches, and that may be missing without him.

Statistically, New England's line has performed well in recent years: by its metrics, the website Football Outsiders ranked it second in the NFL recently. But while Tom Brady may not get sacked a lot (he absorbed just 16 last season, as the line set the 16-game franchise record by allowing just 18 total), he does take more than his share of hits and they're going to start taking a toll on his soon-to-be 33-year old body if they haven't already.

And while there are concerns about the Patriots' run game, keeping Brady upright and healthy should be job number one for the line.
News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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