Secret Superstar: Ryan Wendell
New England’s offense was a juggernaut once again in 2012. The unit led the league in points, total offense and first downs while featuring a balanced attack as evidenced by its top 10 finishes in both passing and rushing offense. When analyzing the Patriots’ offensive output, it is easy to focus on the production from big names at skill positions and to overlook the contributions of the linemen that make the work of Brady and company easier.
Steady offensive line play has long been a crucial and underrated aspect of New England’s success on offense. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is regarded as one of the best in the business, and he has held the same role for Bill Belichick’s entire tenure as head coach of the Patriots. The team’s offensive line was impressive in 2012, finishing ninth in our pass protection rankings, and second in run blocking. The unit’s exceptional work in the run game paved the way for a breakout season from Stevan Ridley in his first full year as a starter.
Scarnecchia and the Patriots have a history of developing unheralded lineman into steady contributors. Stephen Neal was an All-American wrestler who did not play college football, but the team was able to groom him into a guard that played for nearly a decade. When Neal missed time in 2009 due to injury, he was replaced by Dan Connolly, another undrafted lineman. Continuing this tradition of undrafted lineman who developed into starters for the Pats is the subject of this article: center Ryan Wendell.
Wendell was considered just a two-star prospect coming out of high school, but he found a place on the offensive line at Fresno State, playing alongside future Patriots teammate Logan Mankins. He was a four-year starter at Fresno State, playing both guard and center, but did not hear his name called on draft day.
After spending the majority of the 2008 and 2009 seasons on the Patriots’ practice squad, Wendell was a top reserve on the interior line during the 2010 season, and earned the first starts of his career late in the season while Connolly was injured. He held the same role of top interior reserve in 2011, making spot starts at guard and center when starters were injured. Wendell’s hard work put him in position to compete for a starting role in 2012, and he outshined long-time Patriot Dan Koppen in training camp to earn the starting center job.
Wendell produced an outstanding season in 2012, excelling as a run blocker and also displaying rare durability. His cumulative run blocking grade of +27.5 not only led all centers, but was third-best among all offensive linemen, trailing only Eagles guard Evan Mathis and San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley (ranked sixth and 16th, respectively, in PFF’s Top 101 of 2012). New England’s backs enjoyed their greatest success when running behind Wendell, averaging 4.7 and 4.8 yards per carry to either side of him.
Wendell also finished near the top of the league in playing time with 1,399 total snaps (including playoffs), a figure that highlights his toughness and dependability.
As strong as his performance was in the run game this past season, Wendell has significant room to improve as a pass protector. His -6.1 cumulative pass protection grade ranked 33rd of 36 eligible centers, and no center surrendered more pressures (18) or sacks (six) — surely a factor in Tom Brady’s standing as one of the lowest-graded quarterbacks when facing interior pressure (as shown by Steve Palazzolo’s in-depth article on Examining Pressure: QB Play).
Given his stellar work in the run game, Wendell could develop into a Pro Bowler for years to come provided that he is able to improve his pass blocking efficiency.