There are teams facing questions. And then there are teams facing decisions. The Patriots face decisions. They don’t have to puzzle over who will do what for them in 2014. They know their quarterback and head coach. They know who their best defensive and offensive players will be. They have starting-caliber players at every spot. They know -- before Memorial Day even arrives -- that winning fewer than 10 games and missing the playoffs is a virtual impossibility. So with that in mind, we look at a brief list of decisions that need to be reached. One of those decisions has to do with the offensive line.
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The Patriots stockpiled offensive-line picks during the draft. Bryan Stork, a fourth-round center from Florida State, was the first OL selection, followed by fourth-round right tackle Cameron Fleming out of Stanford and sixth-round guard Jon Halapio from Florida. The Patriots didn’t draft any offensive linemen in the two drafts previous to this year’s. The last time they drafted three linemen in a single draft was 2009. Fleming is an interesting prospect but being behind Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle means he may not have a quick impact. Stork and Halapio do have the potential to be involved early. Start with Stork, who could quickly be in competition with returning center Ryan Wendell. Wendell –-- even though he signed a new deal this offseason -- seems vulnerable. Last season, Wendell played well below the standard he set in 2012 in his first season as the starter. He was too often porous in protection and his five penalties (with four drive-stalls, tied for the team high) was third on the team. Stork, meanwhile, won the Rimington Trophy at Florida State given to the nation’s best center. He’s 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, and figures to be given every chance to unseat Wendell. In March, Wendell signed a solid deal to come back to the Patriots: two years at $6.85 million, with an $850,000 signing bonus. He’s got a $1 million base salary each of the next two seasons with another $200,000 in incentives. Wendell doesn’t stick out as a big salary that needs trimming. Guard Dan Connolly, who may find Halapio as his competition, does have that kind of salary; the 31-year-old right guard is due to make $3 million Halapio played right guard in the SEC and the Patriots liked his strength and aggressiveness. Halapio is much heavier than Connolly: 323 pounds at the Combine, compared to Connolly’s 305. We’ll see if the weight needs to come off Halapio to make him quicker to the second level. Meanwhile, veteran Marcus Cannon remains in the mix as well. A talented physical prospect, Cannon wound up tied with the third-most penalties on the team despite playing less than than the guys around him. Cannon also finished tied with Wendell in drive-stallers (no points scored nor first downs gained after a penalty). The middle of the Patriots line is vital because their best offensive asset -- Tom Brady -- is most vulnerable when pressure comes up the middle. That’s because Brady’s lateral speed and quickness aren’t great. An upgrade was needed to the middle of the offensive line.