NFL Draft Positional Review: Offensive Guard

Jackson (54) and Matias (70) are both candidates to follow the Stork (52) to Foxborough. Photo via 247 Sports
As the NFL draft rapidly approaches, PatriotsLife will be doing it's best to keep you informed and up-to-date on all things draft. With that in mind, we'll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots positions of need, sifting through the prospects to highlight potential Patriot fits. The series starts today with what I consider to be their biggest need: offensive guard.

Position: Offensive guard

Need level: High. This position was thrown into a sudden state of flux following the surprising late August trade of Logan Mankins, and their inability to get merely competent play from the position was a primary cause of the team's sluggish Septemeber. After recycling through failed stints from Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Flemming, the line finally settled in when Bryan Stork took over the center position, allowing them to flank him with veterans Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell.

Even then, it was obvious throughout the season that the team could use an upgrade at the position. Connolly demonstrated toughness playing through injuries for much of the year, but his performance noticeably suffered. Connolly ranked dead last this season amongst 59 qualifying guards in Pass Blocking Efficiency, ProFootballFocus's metric for determining pressure allowed on a per snap basis, marking the third straight season he's finished in the bottom 15. As a respected veteran and team captain, Connolly could be brought back on a reduced rate, but it's hard to imagine the team paying starter money to a 32 year old guard with a long history of injuries and three-straight sub-par seasons under his belt. An upgrade is clearly needed here.

Finding a starter to replace Connolly at left guard would be a start, but the line's struggles whenever Connolly missed time illustrated just how dire their depth situation was last year at the position. Given how the year started, the Pats were extremely fortunate that natural center Ryan Wendell was able to defy expectations and stabilize the right guard spot. Despite his relative lack of size, Wendell is a strong run blocker who excelled in that area in 2014. He's less accomplished as a pass blocker, where his middle-of-the-pack 2014 performance (30th of 59 qualifiers at guard per PFF) was a dramatic improvement from back-to-back bottom five seasons at center from 2012-2013. The Pats could double-dip at guard if they want to push the veteran, but his affordable $2.45 million cap hit gives Wendell a decent chance of returning to the starting lineup next year.

The depth behind Wendell is iffy at best. Devey and Cannon were liabilities whenever they took the field inside, and Fleming was clearly out of place inside after spending his collegiate career at right tackle. Josh Kline fared the best of the bunch, stepping up to play well in the AFC Championship game, but he too had his ups and downs, particularly with the Jets Sheldon Richardshon. Adding another body to the developmental pipeline wouldn't hurt.

Day One Fits:

While I view guard as the Patriots biggest overall need, the only way I see the Pats taking a guard with the 32nd overall pick is if an elite talent falls to that spot. LSU's La'el Collins has an intriguing combination of size, power and athleticism, but the college tackle is probably a pipe dream if most pre-draft projections are to be believed.

Erving's athleticism makes him a natural Patriots fits
A more realistic target could be Florida State's Cameron Erving. Erving protected Jameis Winston's blindside during the Seminoles National Championship season, but moved inside to center this season to fill the void left by current Patriots starter Stork. Most scouts project Erving as a better pro inside, where he could play either guard or center. The versatility to play all five line positions in a pinch is a major plus on Erving's resume, and his athletic traits make him an intriguing fit for the Pats at guard. His tackle-esque agilirty makes him a natural at pulling, playing in space, and hitting targets at the second level, all things he'd have to do in abundance in New England. He's also physically fit enough to handle the Patriots crisp no-huddle tempo.

Erving appears to be the only slam-dunk selection that has a chance to be there at pick 32 for the Pats. I've seen some mock South Carolina's AJ Cann to the Patriots at the spot, but Cann projects as a poor fit for the Pats from this perspective. While he has power in spades, Cann is a bit of a lumbering plodder when asked to make reach blocks, something he'll need to do to fit New England's scheme. He also wore down as games went on in college, a troubling tendency given the high tempo and offensive snap counts typical of the Patriots offense. Cann has the ability to be a good starter in a power blocking scheme, but the Pats can find better value with a better scheme-fit later in the draft.

Day Two fits (Rounds 2-3):

What this year's draft lacks in elite guard talent, it more than makes up for with depth. There are a number of guards with NFL starter talent that should be available on Day Two, giving the Patriots a number of options as they approach their draft position.

Two of those guys come from the same Florida State line that brought the Pats Stork, as the Seminoles starting duo of Tre Jackson and Josue Matias can both expect to hear their names called within these picks. The 6'4", 330 pound Jackson is a massive road grader who would bring a nice power boost to the Pats interior line. Like Cann, Jackson succeeds with power rather than quickness and may be better fit for a power scheme, but he played very well in a Florida State blocking scheme that has many similarities to that of the Patriots. Jackson is unlikely to still be available when the Patriots make their second round pick (64th overall), but he could be an option if they trade down from the 32nd spot and pick up a pick in the early/middle stages of the second round.

His teammate, Matias, may be a better scheme fit due to his athleticism. At 6'6" and 325 pounds, Matias has the build and athleticism of a tackle, traits that help him excel at reaching the second level. He has less power and upside than Jackson, but certainly possesses the talent to be a good starter at the next level. Matias is unlikely to last all the way to the Pats third round pick (96th overall), but could be an option either in the second or if the Pats trade their way into the earlier portions of the third round.

Harrison brings serious questions but tantalizing potential
Of course, there are attractive guard prospects who aren't from Florida State in this class, and several of them could provide excellent value at the back of the third round for the Pats. Texas A&M's Jarvis Harrison has the talent to be a Pro Bowl caliber player, but merely flashed rather than consistently dominating in college. Concerns about his weight management and focus will be major red flags to be looked into by Dante Scarnecchia and co, but Harrison's rare combination of size (6'4", 330 pounds) and athleticism could be tough to pass up if he's there in the third round.

A safer pick in the third round range could be Louisville's John Miller. At 6'2" and 312 pounds, Miller has excellent power, enough foot speed to be effective pulling/reaching the second level, and vast experience at both guard spots. Being a consistent, reliable starter through most of his Cardinals career certainly doesn't hurt his resume. Likewise, Georgia Tech's Shaq Mason has a nice blend of power and agility that could make him a potential starter as a rookie.

Just as I eliminated Cann from Patriots consideration due to poor scheme fit, I'm doing the same with Duke's Laken Tomlinson. Tomlinson has the pure strength and power to be a pile-driving run blocker, but his lack of natural athleticism would make him a fish out of water in New England's scheme.

Day 3 fits (Rounds 4-7):

The Patriots are currently set to start Day Three off with two fourth round picks, including the second pick (98th) of that round. Miller, Mason and Harrison could all be potential targets there should they still be available, but another name that jumps out to me in this range in small-school riser Ali Marpet. The Hobart & William Smith project rose out of obscurity after an excellent showing in the East-West Shrine game, and has the athleticism and toughness to develop into a starter at the next level. He'll continue to rise up draft boards after an impressive combine performance that flashed both speed and power. His 4.98 40 yard dash led all lineman and was a mere tenth of a second slower than top QB Jameis Winston, his times at the 3 cone drill and 20 yard shuttle were amongst combine lineman leaders, and his 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench were an impressive total for a relatively undersized (6'4", 307) lineman. Given the level of competition he faced at DIII Hobart, Marpet would be more of a depth option/developmental prospect than plug-and-play upgrade as a rookie, but he could be a nice find in the fourth round range.

He's far from the only intriguing option if the Pats look for developmental depth later in the draft. Tennessee State's Robert Myers is still a bit of a project, but the athletic talent is there for him to develop into a starting caliber player. Arizona State's Jamil Douglas has ideal athleticism for the Patriots system, although he'll need to get stronger and nastier to succeed at the next level. West Virginia's Mark Glowinski is another raw project as a converted tackle, but he has enough strength, athleticism and toughness to have starter upside. All three of those guys should be available in the fourth round, and any one of them could fall all the way into the sixth.