- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the most challenging aspects of running a team is striking the balance between remaining competitive in the present while also building for the future. The New England Patriots have done it better than most, which is highlighted by what has recently unfolded along their offensive line.
Uncertainty on the left side, coupled with advancing age in four of the five spots up front, made the line one of the crucial areas for management to address.
So what did it do?
In a case of all pieces of the puzzle coming together, the Patriots returned their top five players from the end of 2010, while feeding the pipeline with a potential left tackle of the future (first-round draft pick Nate Solder) and a highly rated right guard who unexpectedly slipped in the draft (fifth-round pick Marcus Cannon).
Brilliant. When Patriots management is lauded for shrewd maneuvering, it's for reasons such as these.
If the scouting evaluations are true and things go according to plan, the Patriots are set up for the present with NFL-proven blockers, while the extended forecast calls for a passing of the torch, probably in 2012, that will keep them from relying too much on veterans who might be more likely to break down.
For the plan to work, players need to buy in, and there has to be strong knowledge of the market, financial discipline and, as always, some luck.
First, consider what Light must have been thinking in late April when the Patriots drafted Solder in the first round. It would have been only natural for him to believe his New England days were numbered, especially after the sides couldn't agree on a contract extension during the 2010 league year. A team doesn't draft a player in the first round and expect him to sit for long.
But the Patriots obviously did a nice job conveying to Light that they'd like him back if things didn't work out elsewhere. In doing so, they were confident in their offer (market knowledge) and willing to move on if another team upped the ante to a level they didn't want to match (financial discipline).
In the end, Light, a team-first guy, bought in. If he wasn't happy in New England, it wouldn't have mattered, so his return speaks highly of the overall Patriots culture, particularly the tight-knit group among the offensive linemen, and the way management navigated a delicate situation.
And, of course, there was some luck involved. All it would have taken was one team to blow things up, and it would have been on to Plan B for the Patriots.
While Light's situation highlighted the balance between short- and long-term thinking, there are dynamics with the team's other top blockers that illustrate the club's approach.
The Patriots went the hard-line route with Logan Mankins at left guard. Center Dan Koppen was deemed a rising player early in his career and is on the final year of an extension signed in 2006. Right guard Dan Connolly was groomed on the practice squad, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was a shrewd 2009 second-round pick (he was a second-team All-Pro last season).
It's a never-ending cycle, one the Patriots will still be tweaking next year when Mankins could depart as a free agent if no extension is reached this year. Koppen also could become a free agent.
A team can never stop feeding its pipeline, and sometimes not all decisions turn out as desired.
In 2009, the Patriots felt so strongly about guard/center Rich Ohrnberger that they traded veteran cornerback Ellis Hobbs to acquire two fifth-round draft choices, and those picks were swapped to move up to select Ohrnberger in the fourth round.
In a perfect Patriots world, Ohrnberger would be on the cusp of starting, but he's probably better described as a player on the roster bubble at this point.
Then last year, the Patriots felt good about the value of sixth-round pick Ted Larsen, a center/guard out of N.C. State. But an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad was thwarted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who claimed him on waivers and inserted him into their starting lineup for 11 games at left guard.
With Mankins potentially in his last year with the Patriots, they probably would like to have Larsen in the pipeline.
But that's nitpicking when considering the team's overall body of work and how no team is 100 percent correct on all decisions.
When it comes to balancing the short and long term, few can match Bill Belichick and the Patriots. What has unfolded along the offensive line is one shining example of that.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.