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Can the Patriots Protect Tom Brady?

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If there's one tried and true way to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, it's to attack the middle of his offensive line, prevent him from stepping up in the pocket and disrupt plays as early as possible. Both Super Bowl losses to the Giants and the 2010 AFC Divisional round loss to the Jets were perfect examples of this tactic and we saw it again in early 2014 in losses to the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs.

The Patriots' entire offensive line struggled to start the 2014 season and it wasn't much of a surprise after long-time coach Dante Scarnecchia retired and Logan Mankins was traded in August. That left the Pats scrambling to replace Mankins, using a rotating combination of tackles at the guard spot, including Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon.

The changes also affected left tackle Nate Solder, previously one of the most promising young players in the league, as he appeared to regress. There wasn't much to like about the Pats' front five early last year.

However, the offensive line settled in once rookie Bryan Stork returned from injury and Ryan Wendell shifted to right guard. Wendell's positional change was one of the most underrated storylines of the season, as not even the Patriots' coaching staff believed Wendell to be anything more than a guard before last season.

Dan Connolly, who had started for the Patriots at both center and right guard, shifted to left guard, and the line gelled into one that would finish ranked fifth overall by Football Outsiders.

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But there is cause for concern this offseason, as Connolly remains unsigned, leaving a major hole at the starting left guard spot and the overachiever Wendell without much competition for the starting right guard spot. Depth with actual guards is non-existent, giving many Pats fans nightmares imagining Devey or Cannon back inside.

Connolly still could return, and veteran Stefan Wisniewski did visit the team recently, so there should still be some moves to be made, but the Pats should make upgrading the guard position a priority in the draft.

Tom Brady's quick reads and throws certainly make life easier for an offensive line, but he cannot continue to take the kind of punishment he took last September, as the team tries to find the right combination up front. And despite their solid overall ranking from Football Outsiders, they ranked just 28th in power runs and 27th in stuffed runs. This means the offensive line struggled with the "gotta have 'em" yards.

Prospects like A.J. Cann of South Carolina and Cameron Erving and his Florida State linemates have been all over many Patriots mock drafts and rightly so. Many of the top guards should still be available in the Patriots' second-round sweet spot, and it would make sense to take two of them early.

They have a solid building block at center in Stork and Solder should bounce back. Their depth at tackle is strong with Sebastian Vollmer, Cannon and Cameron Fleming all capable players.

But if the Pats are to extend Brady's career and revitalize their power running game, they need an infusion of youth and talent at guard, a critical spot to playing the game the way Bill Belichick wants to play it.

— Written by Mike Dussault, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and writer/editor of PatsPropaganda.com (@PatsPropaganda), a comprehensive blog covering the New England Patriots.