NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Perhaps the New England Patriots’ most worrisome storyline of the preseason has been the offensive line’s lack of effectiveness; blown pass protections and missed blocks in the run game limited the explosiveness of the passing game and made life difficult for the team’s running backs.
The offensive line went through various combinations and permutations; Nate Solder made all four starts at left tackle, but even today the team’s starting center and right guard are unknown. Dan Connolly will claim one of the two spots, with the other likely being filled by either Donald Thomas or Ryan Wendell. Depth on the line is another concern; fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon appeared to struggle at right tackle, and the remaining players on the active roster – Nick McDonald and Matt Tennant – have very limited NFL experience.
Disappointing preseason performances cost center Dan Koppen and reserve linemen Derek Dennis, Dustin Waldron, Jeremiah Warren, and Darrion Weems their jobs. The linemen on New England’s practice squad (Thomas Austin and Matt Kopa) are not projected to develop into starting options, and those on the reserve list (Kyle Hix, Jamey Richard, Markus Zusevics) are also best suited as roster depth. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer enters the final year of his contract and has had trouble staying healthy; Donald Thomas becomes a free agent this offseason as well. With Brian Waters appearing less and less likely to return for the 2012 season and almost certain to be retired by 2013 either way, both starters and reserve options are desperately needed.
Head coach Bill Belichick has shown a propensity for drafting linemen frequently; his first selection as New England’s head coach was offensive tackle Adrian Klemm back in 2000. Belichick has only overlooked the offensive line three times in his thirteen drafts with the Patriots – in 2002, 2004, and 2012. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins were both first-round draft picks; right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was selected in the second round. Based on his prior tendencies in the draft, it would not be surprising if Belichick opted to stabilize the unit by looking for another long-term starter along the offensive line early in the 2013 NFL Draft; such a move could help prolong the career of 35 year-old franchise quarterback Tom Brady.
The Patriots have struggled to establish the passing game against teams which provide a strong interior pass rush (such as the Giants), as well as against teams with big, powerful defensive tackles (such as the Bills and Jets.) One interior lineman currently projected as an early pick who could interest New England’s front office is Wisconsin Badgers redshirt junior Travis Frederick.
Frederick joined the Badgers in 2009 as an offensive tackle recruit, but moved inside to the interior of the offensive line as a freshman that year; Frederick appeared in five games that season, making two starts at center and two starts at left guard. Most notably, Frederick started at center against Northern Illinois in the season opener that year in place of injured starter Peter Konz, which made him the first true freshman to start an opener in Wisconsin football history.
Frederick was hurt the next week against Fresno State after starting his second consecutive game at center, but returned later in the season as a reserve and later worked his way back into the starting lineup in December, starting at left guard in the Champs Sports Bowl against Miami. Frederick redshirted in 2010 and stepped back into the starting lineup upon returning in 2011; he replaced 2011 third-round pick John Moffitt at left guard. Over the course of the season, he made two starts at center as an injury replacement for Peter Konz (Penn State in November, Michigan State in December) and eleven more at left guard, missing just the Oregon State game. Frederick’s play earned him a spot on the All-Big Ten second team as he helped pave the way for Montee Ball’s 1,923 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns. Frederick enters the 2012 season Wisconsin’s starting center, replacing Atlanta Falcons 2012 second-round pick Peter Konz; Frederick was named to preseason watch lists for the Rimington Trophy (most outstanding center) as well as the Outland Trophy (most outstanding defensive tackle, offensive tackle, offensive guard, or center.)
Size is perhaps Frederick’s biggest asset as a prospect; he stands 6’4″ and is listed at 338 pounds, which would make him one of the biggest linemen in New England. Frederick’s versatility is also appealing; his ability to play either guard or center would offer the Patriots more flexibility along the line. Dan Connolly saw 891 snaps at offensive guard in 2010 and 985 snaps at center in 2011, so the addition of Frederick would allow the Patriots to choose from at least two different offensive line setups. Frederick’s biggest strength as a blocker at this point is his versatility in the run game; he can drive defensive linemen off of the ball and is surprisingly mobile as well. Despite Frederick’s size, he has shown himself to be effective at pulling as well as making second-level blocks in Wisconsin’s zone-blocking system, a blocking scheme which the Patriots also employ under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
Frederick has been able to make hook blocks on linebackers in order to spring Wisconsin’s running backs for big gains. In pass protection, Frederick uses his length and anchor to avoid being driven backwards by powerful nose tackles, which is obviously appealing given the proliferation of 3-4 defenses in the NFL. Frederick’s biggest struggles at this point are against quicker defensive tackles; he looks a little bit awkward setting up in pass protection and can be beat off the snap by tackles who get off of the line of scrimmage quickly and attempt to shoot gaps.
Frederick appears surprisingly polished as a blocker despite having made just 18 collegiate starts to this point (including this year’s season opener against Northern Iowa) and should continue to improve over the last 11-13 games of the season. The interior offensive line class is somewhat deep this year with interior linemen Jonathan Cooper, Barrett Jones, Khaled Holmes, and Chance Warmack all in their senior seasons, but it’s possible that Frederick will choose to forego a fifth season at Wisconsin and enter the draft at the conclusion of the 2012 season with a significant number of starts already under his belt. As it stands right now, the Patriots’ personnel groups most deserving of early-round draft help appear to be the wide receiver position and the offensive line, so Frederick is one prospect who could interest Bill Belichick early in either 2013 or 2014.