For the majority of the past decade, the New England Patriots have fielded one of the most consistent and effective offensive lines in the league.
Left tackle Matt Light has started since 2001 when he was selected in the second round. Center Dan Koppen has started since 2003 when he was a fifth round pick.
Right guard Stephen Neal has started since 2004 after signing with the team in 2001 as an undrafted free agent who had spent his collegiate career as a wrestler.
Starting left guard Logan Mankins was added in the first round of the 2005 draft and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer joined the team as a second round pick in 2009.
The outlook for the future produces many questions, however. Only three of the starters are under contract for the upcoming season (Neal, Koppen, Vollmer) and Neal will be strongly considering retirement this offseason.
That leaves the team in a bit of a predicament considering how unlikely it is that they retain both Mankins—who held out for a new contract for seven games in 2010—and Light, who has historically struggled against premier pass rushers and will soon turn 34.
There's a lot of time to decide how to approach these issues and build a solid starting line for 2011. Here's a look at some of the more likely options.
Matt Light will most likely be brought back in 2011 on a one- or two-year contract. He's been with this organization for his entire career and understands his age will lessen the interest of other teams. He has played at an above-average level for a long time and proved in 2010 that he can still be force in pass protection and the running game.
The team may eventually decide to move Light to the right side and give the more athletically gifted Vollmer responsibilities of Brady's blind side.
If the team decides to move on without Light they could promote from within with the likes of Nick Kaczur, who has started 62 games since 2005 but spent the entire 2010 season on IR. Mark LeVoir could also be a candidate as an undrafted free agent who signed with the team in 2008.
Much less likely to return in a Patriots uniform is Logan Mankins, who has publicly stated he doesn't expect to be back. In all likelihood the team will franchise the Pro Bowl guard and look to obtain some form of compensation via trade whether that be in the form of draft picks or possibly involving another player.
With Mankins highly unlikely to return and Stephen Neal mulling retirement once again, this offseason the team will also have to explore its options at this position. In-house candidates include Dan Connolly, who started 13 games in 2010 proving to be competent and effective at the position.
Quinn Ojinnaka (restricted free agent) and Rich Ohrnberger (a fourth round pick in 2009) could also be given a look at one of the guard slots. With two starters possibly on the way out the team is more likely to address the void in free agency or through the 2011 draft in which they own nine overall picks and six picks in the first three rounds.
Many questions surround the offensive line this offseason and it will be interesting to see if this unit is of a high priority for the team as it has been for the past decade.
A few other names to keep in mind:
Ryan Wendell, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, started two games in 2010 and is under contract through 2011.
Thomas Austin, an undrafted free agent in 2010, signed to practice squad and then to a futures contract in 2011.
Steve Maneri, an undrafted free agent in 2010, signed to practice squad and then to a futures contract in 2011.
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