NEPD Editor: Matthew Jones
After former Boston College Eagles standout Dan Koppen took over New England’s starting center job as a rookie fifth-round draft pick back in 2003, it began to look as though he might remain a Patriot for life, starting every game he appeared in for the first nine years of his career and establishing himself as an intelligent player who excelled at some of the position’s nuances, such as shotgun snapping and who enjoyed unbelievable chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady.
However, towards the end of his tenure with the Patriots, flaws started to emerge in his game, particularly when it came to the undersized center’s attempts at blocking the influx of massive nose tackles which accompanied the proliferation of 3-4 defenses as the league began to transition away from the four-man fronts it had favored for some time.
Koppen’s deficiencies in that regard reportedly led New England to consider some of the NFL Draft’s top center prospects, including 2009 first-round pick Eric Wood, 2010 first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey, and 2011 first-round pick Mike Pouncey. However, New England’s next two starting centers were destined to be players already on the roster.
When Koppen broke his ankle in the 2011 season opener, starting responsibilities fell upon Dan Connolly, an undrafted free agent from the 2005 NFL Draft who had since developed into a slightly above-average starter with the versatility to play either left or right guard, starting fourteen games for the Patriots in the 2010 season. Connolly’s time as a starter began at left guard with Logan Mankins’ extended holdout and continued at the right guard position after Mankins returned to the team, culminating in Connolly starting New England’s divisional playoff matchup against the New York Jets.
However, the team signed former Kansas City Chiefs star Brian Waters in 2011, temporarily relegating Connolly to a reserve role once again; that is, until Koppen went down just 22 snaps into the season and the Southeast Missouri alum was thrust into the starting role, a position he ultimately ended up taking 986 snaps at. Connolly’s ability to minimize the losses of Mankins in 2010 and Koppen in 2011 proved instrumental to the continued effectiveness of New England’s offensive line. However, he ultimately spent just one season at the position, owing to unforeseen factors which necessitated a reshuffling of the team’s personnel at the position.
Instead, the starting role went to Ryan Wendell, a decorated college player during his career at Fresno State who nonetheless went undrafted in 2008 after measuring in at 6’2” and 286 pounds, numbers which suggest an inability to handle the size and power of pro nose tackles, the very players who helped facilitate New England’s search for a top center via the NFL Draft.
Wendell spent his rookie season as a member of New England’s practice squad, where he remained for the majority of his sophomore season as well. Wendell finally saw some playing time in 2010, starting 234 snaps on the season, including making two starts at right guard to conclude the regular season before Connolly returned to start New England’s playoff contest.
Connolly’s role expanded again in 2011, starting three games (two at center, one at left guard) and finishing the season having submitted 360 encouraging snaps. After outperforming Koppen throughout training camp and preseason, New England decided to part ways with their long-time center, turning the starting role over the Wendell, with Connolly sliding over to right guard to account for Waters’ holdout, which ultimately lasted throughout the entire 2012 season.
Wendell’s performance at the position proved far better than anyone could have anticipated, with the center eventually leading the league in snaps and earning a bonus of just under $180,000. With Wendell in the middle of the line, the Patriots ranked third in the league in Adjusted Line Yards on mid/guard runs according to FootballOutsiders, averaging 4.62 yards per attempt, an upgrade over the team’s 4.46-yard average from a season ago, which ranked fifth; the improvement is particularly notable when factoring in Waters’ absence from the line, New England’s most productive offensive lineman in 2011.
Wendell’s role in the improvement was noted by ProFootballFocus, whose game charting led to Wendell finishing with a +24.7 run blocking grade, well above the nearest runner-up, Minnesota’s John Sullivan (+20.9.) Connolly had graded out as a -0.8 in run blocking at the center position in 2011, good for 19th in the league. Wendell’s outstanding production helped create the expectation that he was in line to become the Patriots’ next long-term starter at center.
Indeed, New England’s front-office showed little interest in seeking competition for Wendell in the offseason, with the team limiting their turnover at the position to a series of undrafted free agents including Penn State product Matt Stankiewitch and Notre Dame’s Braxston Cave, both of whom were presumably intended to compete for roster spots or practice squad spaces rather than being envisioned as legitimate challengers to Wendell’s role. However, through three games this season, Wendell has been surprisingly ineffective in the middle of the line, creating concerns about his ability to handle anything opponents throw his way.
The Patriots’ Adjusted Line Yards on mid/guard runs, which, according to Football Outsiders, have ranked in the top five every season since 2007, rank just seventeenth this year with a below-average 3.84 mark. Wendell’s pass protection deficiencies, a problem in 2012 as well, have been even more pronounced this season, as he currently ranks at the bottom of the league in that regard by ProFootballFocus, having allowed two sacks, two quarterback hits, and seven pressures.
Wendell’s status is complicated by the fact that his contract is set to expire at the end of the season, which will require the Patriots to decide whether want to sign him to the type of generous deals which New England has recently rewarded slot cornerback Kyle Arrington and defensive end Rob Ninkovich with in an effort to bolster their roster depth, or whether they are willing to risk losing the 27 year-old center in free agency and begin their search for a more consistent producer who may be more physically well-equipped to handle the league’s elite defensive tackles.
While Wendell’s first three starts have been perhaps the most challenging set of any center in the league, having been responsible for blocking the likes of Bills stars Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and elite Buccaneers under tackle Gerald McCoy, the performances have created significantly more doubt in Wendell’s long-term viability as a starter than existed in 2012. With at least thirteen games left in the season, it’s too early to dismiss Wendell, but he’ll have to dramatically improve his production in New England’s remaining contests in order to earn his place among the league’s highest-paid centers this offseason.