At 11-5, the New England Patriots were the best non-playoff team in football last season, missing the playoffs only because of the resurgence of the Miami Dolphins, who also finished 11-5. Perhaps the biggest downfall to the Patriots' season - and it can certainly be argued that an aging defense and the absence of QB Tom Brady were factors - was the unsettled play of the offensive line.
Despite once again fielding one of the league's best rushing attacks and a relatively consistent scoring juggernaut behind Cassel, the Patriots' line struggled, giving up 47 sacks on the season, with a good portion of them coming in key AFC East matchups. Many thought that given the line's struggles, the team would look to address the position in the Draft.
That happened, but only in the form of project second-round pick OT Sebastian Vollmer, who likely will not be prepared for game action during the 2009 season. (It should also be noted that the Patriots were rumored to be high on OG Eric Wood entering draft weekend; Wood, of course, ended up in Buffalo.) That leaves Matt Light and Nick Kaczur left to man their usual positions; without a serious free agent addition, it's status quo up front for New England. Is that a worry for Pats fans? One guy is better suited to answer that than anyone else I know, and that's MaPatsFan from Pats Pulpit.
The offensive line was a bit of an issue in Foxboro last year, with Cassel getting sacked 47 times (not to mention being partially responsible for a certain knee injury). Yet the line wasn't addressed beyond drafting Vollmer, a project player that probably shouldn't see the field in '09. Does the line have a chance to improve? Are Light and Nick Kaczur in particular capable of handling the edge?
MaPatsFan: I don't mean this to sound arrogant, but part of the reason the offensive line was struggling in 2008 was the success the Patriots have had over the last several years, particularly 2007. In the last eight seasons, the Patriots have played into January six times and four out of six of those stints went into February. It is my opinion that 2007 was such a difficult run from a player perspective, that it was the straw that broke the camel's back. Going into 2008 off-season practices, many of the OL starters were so banged up that they didn't see the practice field until late July or early August. Another reason for the increased number of sacks was Cassel's inexperience. I remember early in 2008, Cassel going sideways instead of moving up in the pocket. When he went sideways, he became a target for pass rushers. Later in the season, he developed a better pocket presence and worked the pocket better.
As you correctly surmise, Vollmer is a project and will see very little time; he's got a lot of guys in front of him before he gets on the field. As far as the starters and backups, 11 out of 13 have contracts coming due at the end of the 2009. The pessimist in me is nervous with the much potential change looming overhead. The optimist in me thinks those 11 will be playing for contracts, be they with the Patriots or another team. I think they do their very best to play as good as possible in order to maximize their earning potential come negotiation time.
Regarding Light and Kaczur, the latter is playing for a contract and both have had significant rest coming into this season. Whether or not that's a positive factor in there performance remains to be seen, but I'm of the opinion it can't hurt and I look for them to have a pretty good year keeping Brady upright.
I think it's fair to lay most of the line's struggles on Cassel, who struggled a bit early on and clearly had to learn a few things on the fly. But I'm not sure if I can swallow the idea that several seasons of success would lead to reduced play from your big men. No matter which way you cut it, the Pats still had over five months of vacation from their Super Bowl loss to the Giants until training camp last season. That's a significant amount of rest, no matter how banged up you are.
It's not as if this is some nightmare scenario for the Pats. All five of their guys have experience blocking for Tom Brady - a quarterback that could make five tackling dummies look like Pro Bowl offensive linemen. The line is gelled, and they're ready to roll. But the poor 2008 season, coupled with the large number of impending free agents and Brady's iffy knee, made the decision to bring in just one project player up front a strange one. But who am I to question the roster-building of the New England Patriots? They'll find a way to make it work.
One more AFC East topic coming your way as we talk Jets running backs.