|Ryan Wendell will be fighting off competition from rookie Shaq Mason for the starting job|
We'll start with the veteran, who should have a head start on the rookie based on experience alone. Most pundits at the time believed the Pats Week 5 shifting of Wendell to guard was a desperate ploy by a team running out of competent lineman. Wendell had played center for the vast majority of his career and, at 6'2" and a listed 300 pounds, the veteran was undersized for that position, let alone guard.
That lack of size had led to struggles in pass protection throughout Wendell's career. 2013 saw Wendell rank dead last amongst qualifying centers in Pro Football Focus's Pass Blocking Efficiency, a metric that measures pressures surrendered against total snaps in pass protection. That was only a slight drop from 2012, when he ranked 23rd out of 27 qualifiers in his first full season as a starter. Wendell had always earned positive marks as a run blocker, including an impressive +34.1 run blocking grade in 2012 from PFF, but the theory was that his poor pass protection would get exposed even more at guard than it was at center. The Patriots seemed to at least initially go along with that thinking, as they only moved Wendell outside once Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming all failed (or got injured in Fleming's case) to fill that void.
However, Wendell was a pleasant surprise for the most part at his new position. Predictably, his run blocking was much stronger than his pass protection, but said pass protection saw a bump from dismal to passable at guard. For the season, Wendell finished tied for 31st amongst 59 qualifiers at guard, right about league average. A step down from Logan Mankins (who finished 19th in that metric), but far better than his fellow starter Connolly, who ranked dead last after surrendering a whopping 29 pressures in just 352 passing snaps. That marked the third straight season in which Connolly finished in the bottom third of the league, which helps to explain the league-wide lack of serious interest in him prior to his retirement.
If Wendell can continue to offer competent protection alongside his usual strong run blocking, it could be enough to keep his starting job through the final year of his contract. He has a significant experience advantage over his competition, which should help a great deal given the complexities of the Patriots offense. Even if he gets beaten out for the starting role, his ability to play both center and guard should make him a valuable reserve for a line that sorely lacked depth last season.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 draft (131 overall), Mason has an opportunity to compete for Wendell's starting job at right guard. While not considered to be as "pro-ready" as fellow rookie guard Tre Jackson, a strong training camp and preseason could push him into the starting lineup sooner than most expected.
Mason actually shares a lot of similarities to Wendell. Listed at 6'1" and "just" 300 pounds, he shares the dreaded "undersized" label. He also shares a propensity for run-blocking, where he was amongst the best road graders in the nation at Georgia Tech. Pop on any film of Georgia Tech (this NC State game, for example) and #70 will stand out. Athletic enough to reach defenders at the second level, Mason plays with a mean streak that will endear him both to Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo and fans who miss Logan Mankins. His understanding of angles is another consistent strength to his game, as Mason often does well when asked to seal off moving targets.
However, like Wendell, pass protection remains a major question mark for Mason. Georgia Tech's run-heavy option attack rarely called for Mason to pass protect, and the rare times it did were mostly quick throws that didn't ask the line to hold protection for long. Mason's inexperience in protection was reportedly exposed a bit at the Senior Bowl, where top defensive prospects often took advantage of him in 1-on-1 drills.
The good news for Mason is that protection can be taught. It's clear from his film that he has the physical tools to develop into a solid pass protector but, like any inexperienced player, his technique needs some work. Coach Gug will surely be in his ear all August, coaching him up on the finer points of protection. The question remains how quickly Mason can learn. Can he make enough improvement in that aspect of his game to be trusted protecting Brady against the monster defensive tackles he'll face in the AFC East? The odds are against him, but stranger things have happened. At the very least, Mason's collegiate experience at center gives him some valuable game-day versatility if he starts his career as a backup.
Sleeper: Cameron Fleming
Week 11, of course, was the Jonas Gray breakout party against the Colts. Fleming played 38 of the 77 offensive snaps as a "jumbo" sized tight end and excelled as a powerful, downhill run blocker. Unfortunately, that would be the highlight of the year for him. His only other extensive playing time came in the regular season's final two weeks against the Jets and Bills, and both games saw a few rough moments for him against those rival's stud defensive linemen.
After floating between positions as a rookie, the long-term plan for Fleming remains unclear, but early indications suggest he could be part of the competition at guard. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported earlier in the offseason that Fleming had altered his training regiment this spring with a focus on improving his movement skills for a potential position switch. At 6'6" and 325 pounds, Fleming certainly has the size and power to be a mauler in the running game. Like Mason, his push for a starting job will likely depend on how quickly and naturally he picks up the finer points of the position. Like Wendell and Mason, Fleming also offers positional versatility that could make him a valuable reserve if he doesn't carve out a starting role.
For the time being, this is Wendell's job to lose. He's coming off of a solid if unspectacular season and has a massive experience advantage over his competition. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be handed a starting job, but three years of starting experience is a significant advantage, both with the playbook and adjusting to the level of competition at this level. At the very least, Wendell will enter training camp playing with the 1's, provided that offseason shoulder surgery doesn't unexpectedly affect his availability.
However, Wendell's grip on his job is tenuous at best. On the final year of a team-friendly deal, his roster spot is secure, but the team will certainly be keeping the future in mind as they make these decisions. Next offseason, the team will face the decision to re-sign Wendell or replace him with a younger option like Mason or Fleming, both of whom are on cheap rookie deals. The cap benefits of going young will be significant, given the need to extend key veterans like Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. If one of the youngsters proves capable of matching Wendell's current level, that could influence the decision enough to tilt the scale the other way. My gut is that Wendell enters Week One as the starter, but an injury or poor start to the season could open the door for his successor to emerge sooner rather than later.
Stay tuned throughout this week and next, as I'll be taking a look at a different camp battle each weekday leading up to Training Camp's opening session Thursday next week. Tomorrow, I'll move across the line to take a look at the left guard spot, where Tre Jackson could become the second straight Florida State product to come in and start for the Pats as a rookie.