Brian Waters Returns: Projecting the New England Patriots' Offensive Line

Aaron DodgeAnalyst IMay 24, 2012

Brian Waters Returns: Projecting the New England Patriots' Offensive Line

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    The wait and ceaseless speculating on Brian Waters' future have come to an end. The Boston Herald is reporting that the 12-year veteran, six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection is returning for a 13th season. (The Herald reported Waters was returning for his 14th season, but he was undrafted and released during training camp, spending the entire 1999 season out of football).

    Waters signed a two-year deal in September of last year after his outright release from the Kansas City Chiefs. He went on to grade out as one of New England's strongest assets on the line, both in terms of production and consistent veteran leadership. 

    The 35-year-old Waters is scheduled to make $1.4 million in 2012, a bargain considering his level of play last year. His return certainly shakes up the depth of the line and necessitates another look into how all of these pieces will fit together. 

    Here's an early projection of the starting lineup and the immediate depth behind them. 

Left Tackle: Nate Solder

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    Credit goes out to the Patriots' staff for playing their cards right on this one so far. New England knew a lot more about Matt Light's extensive health issues than the rest of us, and planned accordingly. Light is more than capable of playing, if talent were the only barometer. 

    His desire to continue playing no longer matched his willingness to put his health, long and short-term, at risk. Enter Nate Solder. 

    The surprise 17th overall selection in 2011, Solder was given an entire year to actively learn and experience as much as he could. And he did it predominately from the right side of the line, the side not responsible for Tom Brady's blind side. 

    In comments reported by Shalise Manza Young, Solder said he expects to have to earn the starting job at left tackle. He also stated that he believes he was drafted specifically for that purpose. It's just the type of quiet confidence that Patriots' fans want to hear at this stage. 

    He had a solid rookie campaign, but knows full well that he's in line for a promotion of responsibility. 

    Roster Threats: Sebastian Vollmer, Robert Gallery, Marcus Cannon, Kyle Hix

Left Guard: Logan Mankins

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    I'm penciling in Logan Mankins as the opening day starter, but only because he operates in beast mode in anything revolving around football. 

    This much is known about Mankins' health status: He had surgery to repair what was noted as only a partial tear of the ACL. That was back in March. Since then, he's been seen at events such as Matt Light's retirement ceremony, without any noticeable limp and notably no brace. 

    The Boston Herald has reported that Mankins will be ready for training camp, but the Patriots' actions this offseason almost suggest otherwise. 

    Dan Connolly's three-year extension had me thinking at the time that he'd be in line for snaps at center in 2012. Then came the re-signing of incumbent starter Dan Koppen and the signing of Robert Gallery. 

    Koppen will be given every opportunity to earn his job back, and I expect him to do so, but more on him later. If he's starting, that leaves two capable and proven starters left with no perceivable role. 

    It's either a really intelligent insurance policy or New England's brass isn't quite sold on the prospects of Mankins returning so early.

    I'm 50-50 on him starting on open day; if he doesn't, I'd place my bet on Gallery filling in.

    Roster Depth: Robert Gallery, Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald

Center: Dan Koppen

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    The proud owner of Tom Brady's second-favorite butt in the world, Dan Koppen returns for his 10th season with the Patriots. He's got himself an interesting contract for the next two years. 

    It's incentive-laden and the bulk of the money is tied to game starts. Koppen is in line to make $200,000 for every game he plays on top of his annual salary. It's a crafty way for the Patriots to protect themselves against injury and possible ineffectiveness.

    If Koppen shows up and simply can't replicate his past success, there's barely any investment to worry about. If he comes back and returns to form after a year away from football, the team is more than willing to reward him with a very respectable salary considering his age and recent injury history. 

    Other than Mankins, Koppen has the most tenuous grip on his starting job, but Dan Connolly would have to outright beat him out for it. There weren't too many calls for Koppen's job prior to his injury, so until I see reason to doubt his capabilities, I'm projecting Koppen as the starter. 

    Roster Threats: Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell

Right Guard: Brian Waters

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    As discussed previously, the return of Brian Waters is big news. His presence on the field and in the locker room are grand assets for the 2012 squad. It took Waters literally a matter of weeks before he had asserted himself as the starting right guard, a position he had never played before. 

    I suppose if we're really covering all the bases, Waters' name can be thrown into consideration for the left guard slot as well. Before coming to New England, Waters spent 11 seasons on the left side of the line for the Chiefs. 

    Right guard remains the most probable destination, however. 

    Roster Depth: Robert Gallery, Dan Connolly, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald

Right Tackle: Sebastian Vollmer

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    Sebastian Vollmer may or may not get a crack at the left tackle spot, but regardless of how that plays out, right tackle is likely where he'll end up.

    Vollmer is an interesting case; if he performs like he did in 2010 when he was selected as a second team All-Pro, he could be looking at a massive pay day. 

    However, if 2011's injury issues rear their ugly head once again, Vollmer's value will take a catastrophic hit. He started only six regular season games last year, but he was subbed in for the second half of the Super Bowl in place of Nate Solder. 

    The talent and potential are there, but Vollmer now needs to prove that 2011 was a blip on the radar and not an ominous sign of things to come. 

    Roster Depth: Robert Gallery, Marcus Cannon, Kyle Hix