The market for a 32-year-old interior offensive lineman is often a quiet one. But for Dan Connolly, it quietly appears to be a strong one.
The longtime New England Patriot is one of the organization’s final three unrestricted free agents remaining, one week after the new league year began. It isn’t due to a lack of interest around the NFL, however.
According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Connolly has garnered the attention of the Seattle Seahawks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Chicago Bears and the Miami Dolphins as of Tuesday. And he’s also garnered the attention of the team he’s been on for eight seasons.
“Patriots want him back,” said Rapoport.
Connolly would be the third-longest tenured Patriots player if he did come back, behind only quarterback Tom Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. But it’s a different form of longevity for Connolly. Unlike them, he’s never been the one with the accolades. He’s never been voted to a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro team.
That is, in a sense, indicative of the player Connolly is – a good one to have around, and also one who’s had to wait his turn to be acknowledged as even being around.
No. 63 arrived in New England in September of 2007, after two seasons and four total games with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 2005 undrafted free agent out of Southeast Missouri State proceeded to spent his initial campaign with the Patriots on the practice squad, yet he would subtly return on a reserve-futures deal for a second.
That return run was spent between the practice squad and the 53-man roster, as the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Connolly appeared in one game in 2008. But his purpose under line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who’s long been known for cultivating fliers into starters, would continue to grow.
Providing roster flexibility as a reserve guard and center, Connolly cracked the active roster in 2009, and went on to start four of his 14 contests that year at right guard in place of injured veteran Stephen Neal. He earned a contract extension in result, and filled in for Logan Mankins at left guard for the first seven games of 2010, then later for Neal at right guard after the three-time Super Bowl champion was placed on injured reserve.
That marked a turning point. Connolly carved his spot along the five-man front for 11 games at center in 2011, then 14 games at right guard in 2012, then all 16 games there in 2013.
Though in 2014, after being named a team captain and starting the first three games in front of Brady, the struggling line under new coach Dave DeGuglielmo underwent another change. Connolly moved left, fourth-rounder Bryan Stork moved in, and Ryan Wendell worked back to health out right.
It worked, through attrition, through youth, through the Super Bowl. And the experience of the oldest lineman on the roster was, in many ways, the glue in why.
Connolly’s performance last season was not seamless. He was responsible for a team-high 14 quarterback hits and 20 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. But he was responsible for only one sack and three accepted penalties, which tied him for the lowest among New England’s starters. And he was, at least partly, responsible for the Patriots’ running game managing 1,727 yards and 13 touchdowns without a single back accounting for more than 412 or five.
Yet now, after 71 starts and 85 games in a Patriots uniform, Connolly finds himself in waiting. He’s been around long enough to see a 33-year-old six-time Pro Bowler in Mankins leave, and he’s been around long enough to see New England draft 10 offensive linemen.
He is the only part of Patriots’ 2007 O-line depth chart – a group which featured the likes of Matt Light, Mankins, Dan Koppen, Billy Yates and Nick Kaczur as opening-day starters – left in the fold. And it remains to be seen if he’ll still be in the fold as free agency settles and the draft approaches.
But through the last eight years, he has been.