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Potential Patriots: Offensive Line

Despite injuries and Logan Mankins’ seven-game holdout, the Patriots’ offensive line put together a strong season.

In fact, the front five played so well that the group earned the 2010 Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award on Friday.

The offensive line surrendered only 25 sacks, fourth best in the NFL, and helped pave the way for the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher in six seasons.

Mankins, whose contract situation has been front and center since last off-season, is so well respected throughout the league that he was named to his third Pro Bowl team despite playing only nine games. Left tackle Matt Light was also named to the Pro Bowl and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was named second-team All Pro.

However, for a group that has prided itself on consistency and for the most part durability, there are big question marks ahead.

Light and Mankins will be free agents, right guard Stephen Neal may be retiring and center Dan Koppen is entering the final year of his contract. Besides Vollmer, the team hasn’t done a great job at drafting long-term replacements as of late and the offensive line will certainly be a top need heading into the draft.

Here are five potential prospects the Patriots may look at in the first few rounds.

1.     Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida: The twin brother of Steelers rookie Maurkice Pouncey, Mike opted to return to Gainesville for his senior year and take over his brother’s position at center. He struggled with shotgun snaps early in the season and definitely did not play as well as he did as a guard during his sophomore and junior seasons. While he may not be as polished as his brother, he still displays good athleticism and quickness and could start at guard from day one. He possesses good size at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds and has the versatility to play any of the three interior line positions. He is a late first-round to early second-round prospect.

2.     Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: Possessing great height at 6-foot-7 and long arms (35 ¼ inches), the former Eagle has started every game sincehe stepped foot on campus, tying the school record with 53 starts. Castonzo has experience playing both right and left tackle; however, he is probably best suited to play on the left side in the pros because of his average power and strength. At only 305 pounds, he could stand to put on some more weight in order to anchor better but definitely has the experience and upside to be a mainstay on the line. He is one of the top two or three tackle prospects, and should be selected in the later half of the first round.

3.     Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: A well-rounded student-athlete, Sherrod brings smarts and skill both on and off the field. The former Bulldog was named an AP Second Team All-American and the All-SEC first team. Like Castonzo, he has great size at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds with 35.5-inch arms. He is known as a very good pass blocker due to his agility and overall athleticism. He is a late first-round prospect.

4.     Stefen Wisniewski, C, Penn State: Like Sherrod, Wisniewski is an excellent student-athlete who has a ton of playing experience. He emerged as a full-time starter in his sophomore year and has played both guard and center during his time at Penn State. He earned AP All-America Second Team honors this past season and is the interior line prospect behind Pouncey. He comes from a strong football background as his uncle, Steve Wisniewski, was an eight-time Pro Bowl guard for the Raiders. While he doesn’t have great size (6-foot-3, 305 pounds), he is intelligent, tough and plays with instincts and technique. Those qualities may remind us of current center Dan Koppen and may make Wisniewski a logical replacement. He should go off the board in the beginning of the second round.

5.     Danny Watkins, G, Baylor: Looking for an interesting story? Look no further than the former Baylor Bear who at 26, is just scratching the surface of his abilities. Watkins spent time as a firefighter and played hockey in high school. He took over for Jason Smith, the second overall pick in 2009, at left tackle and earned All-Big 12 Second team honors for his play in 2010. While he doesn’t have much experience and is the oldest prospect in the draft, he has great upside due to his size (6-foot-4, 312 pounds) and versatility. He is one of the top guard prospects and his best football is still ahead. After a strong Senior Bowl performance, he is making a push to be selected in the second round.