|Kline has more experience, but Jackson figures to be the favorite to start as a rookie|
However, everything changed when a fourth round pick from Florida State entered the lineup. Once Bryan Stork grabbed hold of the starting center job, everything else seemed to fall in place. Stork was an upgrade over incumbent Ryan Wendell in the middle, and Wendell was an upgrade over everyone who had previously gotten a crack at the right guard job. The ripple effect was palpable in the entire line's play, which in turn allowed the offense to turn up and Tom Brady to "look like Tom Brady again".
It appears that more change is coming to the Patriots offensive line this offseason, and history could be repeating itself with the fourth round and Florida State. Last year's starter at left guard, Dan Connolly, retired following a 2014 season that saw him rank last amongst qualifying guards in ProFootballFocus's Pass Blocking Efficiency (a metric that weighs pressure surrendered against snaps in protections). Connolly wound up being a one-year fill-in at Mankins' left guard spot, but that job is open once again this offseason.
That's where Tre Jackson comes in. Projected by many to go in the second round, Jackson fell all the way to the fourth round, where the Pats eagerly snapped him up with the 111th pick. Jackson appears to be the heir apparent for Connolly's old job (he's even been issued Connolly's old #63), but he'll face competition from Josh Kline, who has stepped up when called upon over the past two seasons.
Despite his standing as a fourth round pick, this seems to be Jackson's job to lose. Most had projected Jackson to go much earlier in the draft than he did. His college production speaks for itself: All ACC selections all three of his seasons as a starter, including first team selections the past two years, a unanimous All American selection as a Senior and team MVP honors at the Senior Bowl. Despite that undeniable production and pro-ready measurables, Jackson dropped to fourth round, reportedly over health concerns related to a high school ACL tear. The Patriots obviously put more stock in his starting 42 of a possible 43 games over his three years as a starter.
While Jackson is a rookie, his background should help him get over the learning curve associated with the jump from college to the pros. Florida State's pro-style offense features plenty of similarities to that of the Patriots, particularly on the offensive line. Jackson is already adept at pulling and reaching defenders at the second level, skills he'll need to fit in the Pats offensive scheme. He also displayed his intelligence at FSU, regularly handling mental assignments in picking up complex blitz packages. That skill will be essential in the AFC East, which now hosts two of the game's best (and most blitz-heavy) minds in Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles.
Jackson will also benefit from his familiarity with starting center Bryan Stork, his linemate on FSU's 2013 National Championship team. While Jackson was still very good last season, he didn't make the expected leap from his junior to senior seasons, leading some scouts to speculate whether the loss of Stork hurt his play (Florida State struggled at the center position last fall until shifting eventual first round pick Cameron Erving from left tackle to center midseason). The two showed a real chemistry during their time together with the Seminoles, and Stork should prove to be an enormous help for Jackson as he learns the ropes as a rookie.
While those two factors should help ease Jackson's transition to the pros, the real reason to get excited about him is his physical skillset. At a listed 6'4" and 330 pounds, Jackson has ideal size and power for his position. Given the Patriots past preference for smaller, more athletic linemen, Jackson's selection could represent an adaptation to the rest of their division loading up on the defensive line. That size and power should make him a better option against monsters like Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson and Marcell Dareus, all of whom the Pats will face at least twice in the AFC East.
Jackson will be the Patriots most talented option at guard the first day he steps onto the field at training camp, but no job is guaranteed to anyone with Bill Belichick's Patriots, much less to a rookie. Jackson's ascension to a starting job will depend on his ability to pick up the offense and make mental adjustments to what the defense shows him. If he can do that, the starting job should be his come Week One.
However, if Jackson faces some early mental hurdles as a rookie, Josh Kline should be ready to capitalize. An undrafted rookie in 2013, Kline began his rookie season on the practice squad, but showed enough to earn a promotion to the active roster in November. He saw his first significant action in Week 15, when an injury to Nate Solder forced the Pats to shift Logan Mankins out to left tackle. Kline played well at left guard in that game, and was competitive the following week in his first career start, a 41-7 blowout win over the Ravens.
Many expected him to carry over that late-season momentum into a starting role when Mankins was traded, but a poor performance in the team's final preseason game left him on the inactive list Week One. Kline was inactive for 4 of the team's first 5 games before seeing back-to-back starts at right guard in Weeks 6 and 7 against the Bills and Jets. Both games saw him earn solid marks as a run blocker, but he struggled somewhat in protection against those loaded defensive lines, giving up 3 total pressures in each start. The week 8 return of Bryan Stork pushed Kline back to the bench, where he remained until a late season Dan Connolly injury gave him another shot at significant playing time. The results were a bit better the second go-round, including an impressive start against Buffalo in the regular season finale.
Injuries once again opened a door for Kline in the postseason. An ankle injury to Stork led the Pats to move Ryan Wendell back to center, opening up the right guard job for Kline. While he was merely adequate against the stout front 7 of the Ravens, Kline truly shined in the AFC Championship game, contributing an impressive +3.9 PFF run blocking grade to the Pats dominant win. Stork returned for the Super Bowl, pushing Kline back to the bench, but he had already made his contributions to the Super Bowl run. The job of a backup is to be ready to go when the team needs you, and Kline stepped seamlessly into battle when his opportunity arose.
Despite that, Kline's limited film suggests he's best suited to stay in that backup role. At 6'3" and a listed 300 pounds, Kline is yet another undersized member of the Patriots offensive line, and that lack of pure power has hurt him in pass protection. 2014 saw him give up 15 combined sacks, hits and hurries in just 241 pass blocking snaps, figures that would rank near the bottom of the league if projected over a full season. While he did earn a +4.8 grade as a run blocker from PFF for the season, he needs to improve his pass protection to be a viable long-term starting option, particularly given the defensive tackles he'll need to block every week in the AFC East.
If anything, Kline is the real sleeper in this competition, as it will be a major disappointment if Jackson doesn't emerge with the starting job. 2013 draftee Cameron Fleming is an interesting name in the open competition at guard, as the former college tackle has reportedly refocused his offseason training to prepare for a possible move inside. You can read more on him in my write up on the competition at right guard, where he figures to have a better shot at playing time without a clear favorite for the job. Jordan Devey also remains in the mix for snaps, much to the chagrin of Patriots fans who remember his disastrous early season starts. It's also worth noting that the Pats expect all of their linemen to be able to play either side in a pinch, so right guard options like Shaq Mason and Ryan Wendell could theoretically be in the mix for the left guard spot as well. In the end, the team will get their best two options on the field, regardless of what side of the field they have more experience at.
At the risk of repeating myself, it will be shocking to me if Jackson doesn't emerge from training camp with this job. While a rookie, his combination of pure size, power and athleticism gives him a clear talent advantage over everyone else competing for either guard opening. The Pats seemed to identify Jackson as a potential target early on in the pre-draft process, and it should speak volumes that he emerged from all the scrutiny that ensued unscathed and drafted by the team. If Dante Scarnecchia thinks the guy can play, he can probably play. Kline's veteran status might get him some snaps with the 1's at the start of camp, but I fully expect Jackson to take over the starting job by the time Week 1 rolls around.
Stay tuned tomorrow, when I'll take a look at the competition for snaps behind what figures to be a strong tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. Also, be sure to check in next week, when our Training Camp Battles series turns it's attention away from the line of scrimmage and towards the sexier competitions at receiver, running back and cornerback.
Related: Training Camp Battle: Right guard