The Patriots welcomed guard Logan Mankins back to the team on Tuesday, two weeks earlier than Mankins needed to accrue a season and become a free agent in 2011. He signed his $1.54 million tender for the rest of the season, but isn’t any closer to reaching a long-term agreement with New England, according to reports.
Head coach Bill Belichick is happy to have his two-time Pro Bowler back. Logan’s teammates welcomed him back with open arms, as he was missed in the locker room.
As for being missed on the field, well, not really. Mankins’ eventual return to the starting lineup does make the offensive line better. But after eight weeks, the coaching staff adjusted the offense’s style of play to minimize the impact of his absence.
Better said, the Patriots learned how to play without Mankins.
The offense isn’t dominant overall or when broken down in run/pass categories. But they’re efficient and winning in other key categories. They are second in third down percentage, tied for seventh in sacks allowed with 12, third-fewest QB hits with 23, tied for fourth-fewest interceptions with four and tied for second with just two fumbles lost.
Initially, the solution was utilizing the team’s strength at tight end. Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski have played primarily as blockers this season. Crumpler received the ultimate compliment, saying his blocking makes him like an additional blocker.
And if a defender beats a lineman, a running back will get his blockers’ back.
Following the trades of receiver Randy Moss to Minnesota and Deion Branch from Seattle, the offense changed to more quick passes. With QB Tom Brady getting rid of the ball quicker, the offensive line doesn’t have to hold blocks for long.
If the offense was going to show signs of missing Mankins, it would be in the running game. Logan is a physical, nasty, play-to-the-whistle blocker. Yet the team is averaging 4.2 yards per carry with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the way and Danny Woodhead bursting through holes.
Dan Connolly played well in place of Mankins. Connolly and his linemates have more than held the fort when securing the pocket. The one exception was against San Diego in Week 7. At the time the Chargers had the best pass rush and looked it with four sacks and constant pressure on Brady. In his worst performance, Connolly was replaced by Ryan Wendell in the second half.
Mankins over-valued his worth to the Patriots. Typically a weakness can be exploited. But New England proved there are plenty of ways to compensate for the interior offensive lineman.
He’s also not giving enough credit to his teammates. There’s always a drop-off in performance between the starter and his backups. However, Belichick makes sure he has capable players behind the starters ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
Belichick especially explores all options to make sure he has quality depth along the offensive line. Connolly was slightly used in Jacksonville for two years before being released. He was signed to New England’s practice squad 11 days later.
Wendell was signed as a rookie free agent out of Fresno State last year. Starting right guard Stephen Neal is a former collegiate heavyweight wrestler. For added depth, they traded for G Quinn Ojinnaka after playing against him in a preseason game.
If it wasn’t Connolly or Wendell, it would be someone else. Belichick drafts a lot of offensive linemen, particularly in later rounds. This year it was Thomas Welch and Ted Larsen.
In 2009, it was Rich Ohrnberger and George Bussey. Mike Elgin had a chance to impress in ’07. The year before that it was Dan Stephenson.
Maybe they can’t play at this level immediately, but if they show the coaches enough in practice and in preseason games, they are developed on the practice squad for a year or two. If they pan out, the Pats have players familiar with the system ready to contribute when their name is called.
Welch and Larsen could had been developmental players. But both were signed by other teams when New England cut them after the preseason. Larsen played three games for Tampa Bay this year, starting two. Welch meanwhile is on Minnesota’s practice squad.
This could very well be the last season Mankins plays in a Patriot jersey. If Logan can’t reach an agreement with the Pats by the end of the NFL season, he will become an unrestricted free agent.
Unless New England franchises Mankins, he will be free to sign with any team. One team will step up and pay Logan the money he’s looking for if the Patriots don’t meet his demands.
But know this: The Patriots will be fine without Mankins in the future. They already proved they can play without him.
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