When the NFL playoffs end and the offseason rolls around, fans of the New England Patriots will be clamoring for new weapons to surround quarterback Tom Brady. It's an understandable impulse; after all, Julian Edelman, the Patriots' top skill-position player this season, was once a seventh-round pick at quarterback and is an impending free agent.
However, when Rob Gronkowski eventually comes back, the Patriots will be set at the skill positions between Gronk, a hopefully returning Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and now-rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson. What the Patriots really lack moving forward is talent along the interior offensive line.
Logan Mankins is an All-Pro-caliber guard and tough as nails, but his injury history is well-documented and ill-timed, and he's on the back nine of his career as it is.
Beyond Mankins, the question marks really start to emerge. Center Ryan Wendell (worst center in the NFL in pass-blocking, per Pro Football Focus) and right guard Dan Connolly (73rd of 81 guards as a pass-blocker by the same metrics) are average on their best days. Swing lineman Marcus Cannon has upside at either tackle or guard, but the Patriots need more talent along the line overall.
Let's take a look at a few players the Patriots should look at to protect Brady going into the 2014 season.
This would be the dream scenario for the Patriots at center, which by definition makes it unlikely to happen. The Patriots don't have a ton of cap room, so to afford Mack, they would likely need to restructure defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's contract and let one or more of their free agents walk.
But let's delve into a situation in which the Pats splurge at center. The Cleveland Browns' Alex Mack would give the Pats one of the league's best centers at 29 years of age. Mack is a phenomenal interior run-blocker who gets great push off the line, and he grades out as the fifth-best pass-blocking center, per Pro Football Focus.
Mack currently makes $3.7 million on his base salary, but it's time he gets paid like a top-five center. Expect the average annual value on his next contract to be somewhere around $5-6 million on a long-term deal if he isn't franchised.
It's a big payout and thus a highly unlikely outcome for the Patriots. Still, given their needs along the inside of their line, it might be a good investment.
I'd expect top guard Zach Martin to be off the board before the Patriots pick, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots nab a defensive lineman in the first round. In the second round, however, the Patriots may take a good look at Baylor's Cyril Richardson to bolster their interior line.
Richardson has a massive frame at 6'5", 340 pounds and possesses the kind of nasty streak that would make Logan Mankins proud. He's also surprisingly light on his feet when moving laterally, making him a high-upside player as a guard for the Patriots.
Richardson played both tackle and guard at Baylor for an offense that racked up nearly 630 yards a game in 2013. If the Patriots feel he can play the right side as well, he may be an instant starter at right guard in place of Dan Connolly. If not, he's a high-upside prospect and excellent backup to Logan Mankins at left guard.
The other route the Patriots could take is signing an aging player to a shorter-term deal until they can develop some young interior line prospects under coach Dante Scarnecchia. Travelle Wharton of Carolina would be a very strong pickup for the Pats at a reasonable cost.
Wharton signed a one-year deal worth $1.1 million to play with the Panthers last season. Some questioned how much was left in the tank, as he was 32 years old, but he responded with a very strong year. Wharton finished seventh overall among guards, according to the Pro Football Focus metrics. His versatility (He can play tackle in a pinch.) is a plus, while his prior ACL history and age may scare teams from giving him a big contract.
The Pats could lay out a deal with incentives tied in if they felt Wharton was a fit. In return, they'd have their most formidable guard pairing since Brian Waters left town.