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Connolly poised for bigger role in 2012

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After stepping in for an injured Dan Koppen in 2011 and earning the trust of both his coaches and the franchise quarterback he was charged with protecting, Patriots offensive lineman Dan Connolly received the type of contract this offseason that suggests he’ll resume his starting role in 2012.

He was paid over $3 million to sign the new pact, and is due nearly $10 million in total over the next three seasons. It’s big money for a guy overlooked during the 2005 NFL draft, and a player who was best known for a 71-yard kickoff return in 2010 rather than any block he had executed before the 2011 season.

But even with some financial (and presumably job) security on his side, Connolly remains focused on doing the things that got him to this point.

“I don’t know where I’m gong to be as far as position-wise, I’m just out here competing and I’ll fit into the spot that’s best for me and best for the team," Connolly said after practice Thursday.

Connolly could enter training camp battling with veteran Dan Koppen for the team’s starting center job, although it remains possible that he will take reps at guard as well, as the team deals with moving parts at the position. The 29-year old insists that either position is fine by him.

“Obviously last year that’s what I played (center), but in years past I’ve played guard too,” he said. “I don’t know if I have a preference, I’ve been playing them all and I enjoy whatever I play when I’m playing it. So whatever it is, that’s what it is.”

Regardless of where he plays on the line, Connolly doesn’t sense any added pressure because of his hefty contract.

“No, I don’t look at it that way, I’m looking at it as earning a spot on the team every year and just competing, the money is something completely separate," he said.

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects to Connolly’s 2011 rise was his ability to integrate himself into the line so effectively, along with right guard Brian Waters, a late arrival to the mix.

Although Waters and fellow starter Logan Mankins have been absent from OTA’s, Connolly has been able to see the silver lining in the situation.

“I just think that it’s good – not that it’s good that they’re not out there – but it’s good to have other guys be able to work into that spot and just give us an opportunity to play with more people than we would normally play with, and just everybody get used to playing with different combinations of people,” he said.