The New England Patriots could call upon several positions at No. 32 overall in the 2015 NFL draft. And along the five-man front, there are several variables to account for, inside and out.
With left guard Dan Connolly still a free agent, and with right guard Ryan Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder entering the final years of their deals, New England’s line stands in a pliable stage heading into April 30.
One of the closest things to a long-term certainty there is at center, where Bryan Stork, a fourth-round pick last May, earned a total of 13 starts as a rookie. But where fellow fourth-rounder Cameron Fleming and swing man Marcus Cannon fit next season is unclear. And the same can be said of where New England’s war room will fit in this year’s prospects.
Head coach Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and the Patriots may be able to put all the spots in place by drafting one, however.
Here are three linemen to watch for if the organization remains at the end of the first, with videos courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com.
Cameron Erving, Florida State
Erving played his first 13 games for the Seminoles as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, tallying 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2011. But the 6-foot-5, 313-pound lineman went on to tally much more on the other side of the ball over his final three years in Tallahassee.
He started all 14 games at left tackle in 2012, then all 13 games there on the way to being named first-team All-ACC in 2013. And as a fifth-year senior in 2014, Erving started the initial nine games at left tackle before transitioning over to center for the last five. He garnered first-team All-ACC honors on the blind side in result, along with second- and third-team All-ACC honors from the media and coaches at center.
Erving concluded his Florida State career having started 42 straight. Over that time, he showed his versatility, yet he also showed his athleticism in working quickly from the ground up. With agile footwork and quick-responding hands, the two-time recipient of Jacobs Blocking Trophy battled in pass protection, and revealed the lateral movement to hit the second level in the run game and screen game. And while there were moments of struggle in between, kick-sliding against speed edge-rushers and leveraging against powerful defensive tackles, there remains room to grow.
New England could be a destination for him to do so, next to his former teammate, Stork. Erving participated in front of retired Patriots line coach Dante Scarnecchia at the Florida State pro day on March 31. And whether it be at center, guard or tackle, the Seminoles blocker has the tools to develop at a position he has not yet mastered.
A.J. Cann, South Carolina
The Patriots have a history of waiting when it comes to guard. Logan Mankins, a 2005 first-round pick who developed into a perennial Pro Bowler at left guard, played left tackle at Fresno State. And Adrian Klemm, a 2000 second-round pick who started 10 games over five years with the team, played the same at UCLA.
In fact, the earliest a pure guard prospect was selected in the Belichick era was the fourth round, with Rich Ohrnberger in 2009. Ryan O’Callaghan in the fifth, Jon Halapio and Dan Stevenson in the sixth, and Mike Elgin in the seventh are the others to be taken over the last 14 years. But if there was a change in trend in the 15th year, Cann would be the top candidate to start it.
The 6-foot-3, 313-pound Cann earned 51 starts at left guard for the Gamecocks. And by the time 2014 was over, he had finished his South Carolina career as a two-time captain, a first-team All-SEC selection and a second-team All-American.
Cann’s longevity is rooted in his willingness to get low at the point of attack. His pad level, lower-body flexibility and powerful hands have allowed him to finish off blocks thenceforth. He is fast to pave his lane in pulling assignments, and he steadily finds the extra rusher as a pass-blocker. And although there are concerns when it comes to his ability to regain stability and outlast a tug of war, there are few questions elsewhere. Cann’s broad-shouldered strength, knee bend, and knack for striking first paint the picture of an opening-day starter next September. Scarnecchia was also on hand for his pro day on April 1.
Laken Tomlinson, Duke
Along the same lines as Cann, Tomlinson is a clear-cut guard heading into the NFL level. But unlike Cann, the Blue Devil carved his place to the right of center, and he did so by starting every game there since 2011.
After redshirting in 2010, Tomlinson became the seventh Duke player to be named a first-team Freshman All-American in program history. And by the time his run in Durham ended, he had accrued a second-team All-ACC selection in 2013, as well as first-team All-American and first-team All-ACC honors in 2014.
The 6-foot-3, 323-pound Tomlinson forges against the grain of defensive linemen, using his hips to catalyze blocks ahead of sturdy, driving legs. And as a four-year starter, the pre-med student learned how to use his heavy base to his advantage when anchoring as a pass-blocker. But establishing the inside hand has been key in that outcome. When he hasn’t been able to, he hasn’t been able to mitigate his shortcomings.
Tomlinson is, in essence, a road-grading kind of talent on the strong side of the line. His footwork still shows some residual effects from that, as does his athleticism and suddenness when maneuvering east and west to find his target. However, his raw power, which has seen him bench defensive tackles off the ball, is a quality that could garner a close look at the fringe of the first round or beyond it. The Senior Bowl standout had a formal interview with the Patriots at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.