FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For four weeks at the start of the 2014 season, the New England Patriots offensive line was a group of turnstiles. Porous pass protection led to a beating on quarterback Tom Brady unlike any we've seen before.
Part of the problem was a rotation on the offensive line that was counterintuitive to the idea that linemates need to be familiar with the men playing alongside them. Once the Patriots finally settled on a consistent starting five, the offense clicked and hit a stride that wasn't broken until they were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions.
Fast-forward to the first day of training camp, and once again, there is uncertainty on the offensive line. But where the Patriots were clearly undecided at this time last year, they at least seem headed toward the finish line this year.
There was no doubt that Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder would be the starting tackles last year, and that remains the case in 2015. Bryan Stork is going to be the man at center, but there's still some work to do—at least in the words of offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo.
"If [Stork is] going to be the center right off the bat, and make calls and set the table and be the man, then he's got a lot of work ahead of him," DeGuglielmo said on Thursday following the Patriots' first practice of training camp. "He knows it, and he's taking a serious approach. I like the fact that he keeps his head down and does his work. If he was out there doing floor shows and being the class clown, I'd have some concerns."
Stork participated in 13 games as the center in 2014, and he started in 11 of those games. He's been off to a strong start in training camp and has been one of the sure things in the offensive line through the first week of practice.
His insertion as the starting center, along with Ryan Wendell at right guard and Dan Connolly at left guard, stabilized the shaky interior of the offensive line. But with Connolly now retired and with Wendell not participating at practice, the guard spots are once again a question mark.
Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason appear to be the best bets to end up as the answer to those questions. They have earned a majority of the quality reps at those spots through the first week of camp. But according to DeGuglielmo, just because they're ahead of others at their position doesn't mean they are anywhere close to a finished product.
"They're rookies, so I see a lot of things that need to be improved," DeGuglielmo said. "They have a lot of work to do. They know it. Every day is a great challenge for them. They're going to be rotated in at a bunch of different spots, with other people next to them. They won't be in the same spot all the time; it's just the nature of the position.
"They've got a lot of learning ahead of them. They've done a good job to this point of digesting a whole lot of information. This is a very complex system for a young kid coming in, but they've done a real good job."
Even as two highly regarded rookies, it is pretty rare for the Patriots to let a combination work together for a majority of the snaps. Typically, the preseason and training camp are used for getting linemen used to the idea that they will be working with different people at different times. That is to say, there's a lot of change with different players coming in and out at different times.
There is nothing wrong with that philosophy as long as there is some stability when the regular season comes around. That being said, there was little to no stability on the offensive line at the beginning of the 2014 season. That instability resulted in a lot of extra pressure on Tom Brady.
But if you think that last year's early offensive line meltdowns are having any impact on the team's training camp and preseason mentality on figuring out its starting lineup, you are sorely mistaken. Per DeGuglielmo:
If it happens early, it happens early. You can't push progress. You have to accept it as it comes and try to help it along, but things take time. If it happens in two days, it happens in two days. If it happens in six weeks, it happens in six weeks. You just don't know. You do the best you can. Everybody's keeping their head down and working and trying to do the best they can to go rep after rep. As they start to build up and as practices build up, you just get a sense that one guy fits over another. But that's a long process.
When they are incumbent players, it's a little easier to assess that, but we've been through this before. Every program goes through this, and we're no different. But coach will get it right, I promise you that. He knows which guys he'll eventually put in there. He may not know it right now, but he'll get it right.
It's the old "in the Belichick we trust" mentality. And it's not necessarily based on blind hope. The turmoil of the Patriots' early-season offensive line picture eventually settled down when they finally decided on a group of starters that included Stork in the middle flanked by Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell at the guard spots.
As of right now, it's fair to characterize the Patriots offensive line as 60 percent complete. The remaining 40 percent is a work in progress, but at least the picture is coming into focus at an early stage of the offseason program.
Whenever there's a competition, there's always room for change. As of right now, Wendell is still on the active/non-football injury list. He could be activated at any point, which would ultimately add another experienced body to the battle at guard.
Until then, the two rookie guards have a real chance at carving out starting spots on the offensive line for the preseason, which could translate into the regular season if they perform up to a standard that is becoming of a starting offensive lineman in the NFL.
Unless otherwise noted, all practice notes and quotes obtained firsthand.