Can Stork beat out David Andrews to retain the starting center job? Photo by Stew Milne
With Patriots training camp thankfully almost upon us, I'll be taking a closer look at some of the more intriguing positional battles on the roster. After taking a look at a competitive group of cornerbacks on Saturday, I'm turning my attention back to the offense today and reviewing the most unpredictable position group on this roster: the interior offensive line.
In a competition this deep and unsettled entering camp, the only player I can confidently call a lock is the one the team invested a third round pick in this spring. While Thuney excelled at left tackle as a senior at NC State, the Patriots clearly view him as a interior player first, as he saw the majority of the starting reps at left guard during OTAs and minicamps. Handpicked by legendary OL coach Dante Scarnecchia this spring, Thuney fits the profile of past Patriots lineman under Scar to a "T": he's an athletic tactician whose play on the field far outweighs his physical talent. To that point, ProFootballFocus graded Thuney as one of the best lineman in the country during each of the past two seasons, at guard in 2014 and tackle last fall. That versatility adds significant game day value to Thuney's case, as he could play either tackle position or even center if injuries created an emergency situation at either position. That could make him a valuable utility reserve if he doesn't earn a starting job as a rookie, but it looks like he's one of the front runners to start entering camp. Other than inexperience, the one concern for Thuney's rookie season is his size. Thuney measured in at 6'5" and 304 pounds at the combine, making him noticeably skinny for an interior player, and he could be pushed around early in his career by some of the bigger brutes he'll be facing.
Cooper is loaded with talent, but hasn't lived up to the hype yet
As one of the key pieces to come back to New England in the Chandler Jones trade, it would be a major disappointment if Cooper didn't make the final roster. In fact, given the physical talent that led to Cooper being a top 10 pick in 2013, it would be highly disappointing if he doesn't win a starting job. That was reflected in the reps during the spring, as Cooper took the majority of the starting reps at right guard. Cooper has rare athleticism for a man his size, giving him the upside to develop into a high level starter at the pro level, but injuries consistently got in the way during his star-crossed Cardinals career. He lost his entire rookie season to a broken leg, spent much of his second season hampered by toe and wrist injuries, and lost his starting job last fall after missing two games with a knee issue. He's healthy now and maintaining that will be key for his chances on reaching his potential. It will be interesting to see how he responds to the demanding coaching of Scarnecchia, who has a long history of getting the most out of far lesser talents than Cooper. Scarnecchia reportedly "loved" Cooper as a prospect back in the 2013 draft, which isn't surprising given how his athleticism makes him a tantalizing scheme fit.
A fourth round pick last year, Mason was considered a bit of a project as a prospect due to his lack of experience in pro-style pass sets. Despite this, injuries and a lack of high end talent surrounding him on the depth chart led to his playing significant snaps as a rookie, during which he predictably struggled to protect the quarterback. However, Mason also flashed the high upside he brings to the table as a run blocker. He's a fantastic athlete who can get moving and hit targets at the second and third level of the defense. Mason also plays with a mean streak in the run game, looking to bury defenders who get in his way. If he can improve his pass protection, he projects as a legitimate candidate to start. However, he won't see the field amongst this group if his protection remains the work in progress it was last season. With a full year under his belt now in the Pats pro system, along with a full offseason of Scarnecchia's hands on teaching, Mason is an intriguing player to watch in camp.
After solidifying himself as a rookie starter during the 2014 championship season, Stork was expected to be a rock in the middle of the Patriots line for years to come. However, things didn't go as planned in 2015, as he missed the first eight games of the season due to lingering concussion symptoms. Stork did regain the starting center job once he returned, but didn't play particularly well. While he did inject some nastiness in the run game, his pass protection was consistently poor. He also earned several dumb penalties, putting a banged up offense in some challenging spots. As a result, he now finds himself in direct competition for the starting job with David Andrews, who played well as his replacement during the first half of the season. I'd expect the loser of that competition to still have a roster spot, as it would be highly unusual for the team to go into the season with just one true center, but it's no guarantee given Thuney's ability to man the pivot if need be. Stork has versatility on his side, as he actually filled in at right tackle during the Giants game due to a lack of healthy bodies, but his inability to stay healthy is a legitimate concern. Health concerns were part of the reason he dropped all the way into the fourth round back in 2014, and it would be surprising if his lengthy concussion history wasn't on the team's radar with regards to long-term planning.
Andrews has a legitimate chance to win the starting job this summer
Not much was expected of Andrews as an undrafted rookie last year, but he not only made the team but was forced into a significant role by Stork's injuries. Andrews surprisingly started the first eight games of his career and played well enough to create a legitimate battle for the starting job this summer. He split the starting reps with Stork pretty evenly throughout spring work and will likely do so during camp unless one pulls away from the other. While Stork is bigger and more physical than Andrews, Andrews brings more athleticism to the table, which showed up on tape with some nice cut blocks in the open field. He should also be significantly more comfortable in the offense now that he has a full year of experience under his belt, which is key for the center position. Losing the battle for the starting job could be more costly to Andrews than to Stork, as Andrews brings far less positional versatility to the table, but Stork's history of injuries would make keeping a high-level backup at center a priority. For now, I'm expecting both to make the team.
A former undrafted rookie, Kline is now entering his fourth season after steadily climbing the depth chart throughout his Patriots career. In fact, Kline was the Patriots best lineman on a snap-to-snap basis last year, earning steady marks from ProFootballFocus until late in the season, when a shoulder injury sapped his effectiveness. That performance earned him a two year contract extension, locking him up at very affordable rates if he remains the player who impressed through much of last season. Despite that solid play, Kline finds himself fighting off some higher upside players for his job this summer. His chances at starting likely depend on the development of his younger competition, but Kline projects as excellent depth and a solid fall-back option at guard if the likes of Cooper, Mason and Thuney fail to reach their potential immediately.
On the fringe:
Jackson could be the victim of a numbers crunch on the depth chart
Barring injury, someone with significant talent and name recognition is going to be cut from this group. At the moment, I'd say the player in the most danger is Jackson, despite his standing as a fourth round pick last year. That's not particularly fair to Jackson, who put forth a predictably up-and-down rookie season. In fact, Jackson was more consistent on a snap-to-snap basis than his fellow rookie Mason. However, Jackson appears to have less upside than some in the competition. While Cooper, Mason and Thuney are all well-above average athletes for the position, Jackson is more of a plodder who wins with power rather than speed. That at times makes him a poor fit for the Patriots offense, as both the play-calling and quick tempo are very physically demanding on lineman. Jackson also has an injury history working against him. He missed several games last season with a knee injury, and it was reported that his medical reports were what caused him to draft from his second round projections all the way to the fourth round. If Jackson doesn't make the final cut, the Pats would surely try to sneak him onto the practice squad, but doing so might be difficult, as he'd be an attractive target for teams running more of a power-based scheme. If the team suspects Jackson will indeed be the victim of a numbers crunch, perhaps he could be flipped to such a team for a draft pick next spring.
The great-nephew of NFL legend Alex Karras, Ted became the fifth member of his family to make it to the NFL when the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round this year. Universally described by scouts as a blue-collar overachiever, Karras probably lacks the physical talent to make a dent in this year's competition for the active roster. However, he could be a prime candidate for the practice squad, which Scarnecchia has used to develop unheralded players into contributors throughout his long Patriots tenure. "Tough gritty overachiever" were all terms used to describe players like Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Tom Ashworth, Russ Hochstein and Kline, all of whom were undrafted and developed in relative anonymity only to become major contributors later in their careers. Karras could be another guy to follow in that path, but the practice squad will likely be the first step to his career.
Another former undrafted rookie, Barker has spent all of his three year career except for his rookie year training camp with the Patriots, spending much of that time bumping back and forth between the practice squad and active roster. The fact that he's managed to stick around that long is telling, but he has never played significant snaps in his career. While he displayed the versatility to swing out to tackle if need be last preseason, the hard-to-watch results of that experiment proved that should only be an option if there is dire lack of available bodies at the position. With his practice squad eligibility now up, it's hard to imagine Barker lasting beyond this training camp in New England.
The most recent addition to the Patriots depth chart at guard, Kerbyson is an undrafted rookie who participated in minicamp practices with both the Texans and Saints. He started the past two seasons at left tackle for Tennessee, earning second team All SEC honors as a senior, but his lack of elite athleticism has him projected to move inside as a big, powerful mauler at guard. While Kerbyson remains a long-shot for the active roster, he could earn a practice squad spot and a chance to develop under Scarnecchia's tutelage with a strong showing in camp.