The Patriots' offensive line took a couple of hits this offseason with the losses of Mike Compton and Damien Woody - two players who started the last three season openers for the club - and while they try to replace those players from a group that includes unproven types like Russ Hochstein, Stephen Neal and Bob Hallen, the X-factor up front may be line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has done a terrific job meshing a bunch of relatively anonymous players into a group capable of meeting most challenges.
That was evident throughout last year when rookie fifth round pick Dan Koppen stepped in at center while Woody moved out to guard to replace the injured Compton and undrafted free agent Tom Ashworth stepped in for Adrian Klemm at right tackle. Then, when Woody went down in the playoff opener, Hochstein stepped in almost seamlessly as the line played tough against two of the most physical defensive fronts in the league - Tennessee and Carolina - while not allowing a sack in three playoff games.
Scarnecchia has coached in New England under Ron Meyer, Raymond Berry, Dick McPherson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. For the last four years, he has been Belichick's assistant head coach and offensive line coach.
"He's the best," Belichick said succinctly. "Dante is as good a coach as I've been around. He does a great job from top to bottom, from rookie to 13-year veteran, from tackle to center to backup guys and guys that are on the practice squad and don't play that eventually develop into solid players. He is outstanding."
While Belichick is quick to praise his offensive line coach, he is more reluctant to heap compliments on the line itself. "It was all right," Belichick said of the line's play in last year's playoffs. "I think a big part of it in the passing game was our efficiency in getting the ball out quickly. I thought the line and the backs did a pretty good job on picking up blitzes. There is a lot of room for improvement but it was adequate."
Scarnecchia is a big part of why the group was even adequate. Consider that left tackle Matt Light was a second round pick, but Hochstein and Koppen were late-rounders and Joe Andruzzi and right tackle Tom Ashworth were both undrafted. That group, which started Super Bowl XXXVIII, will open training camp as the starters. Light, Andruzzi and Ashworth are also all entering the final year of their contracts, meaning Scarnecchia could be trying to glue together another new group of linemen a year from now.
Scarnecchia was the man Belichick pegged to develop young linemen because it's a position on which Belichick doesn't want to spend vast amounts of money in a salary capped league. The combined salary cap total of the five projected offensive line starters is about $3.5 million with Andruzzi's $1.3 million hit topping the group.
Scarnecchia's charge this year will be to ready players like Neal and Brandon Gorin for playing time.