Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots could be without three of their five starting offensive linemen from last season. Longtime left tackle Matt Light retired, Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins recently had knee surgery, and fellow guard Brian Waters' playing future is unknown.
New England hopes it has several hidden gems waiting to fill in with young tackle Nate Solder, veteran lineman Robert Gallery and by re-signing center/guards Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly. New England's offensive linemen are interchangeable, but some combination of these players could be key to the Patriots' success on offense early in the season.
Solder is the most important replacement, because he is responsible for protecting quarterback Tom Brady's blind side. It was a job Light had for 11 years. Solder, a 2011 first-round pick, looked sharp as a rookie at right tackle. But playing the left side is more pressure. Gallery is a nine-year veteran with 103 career starts at guard and tackle. Koppen and Connolly could play center or guard.
It is difficult to pick New England's five starting offensive linemen at this point. Much of it will come down to Mankins' rehab and Waters' decision to return. But New England has plenty of depth and versatility to handle the adversity.