Brian Waters fills need for Patriots

The New England Patriots added much-needed depth on their interior offensive line by signing veteran guard Brian Waters Sunday.

Can Waters, a veteran of 11 NFL seasons, still play at a high level at 34 years old? If durability and production are any indications, Waters can still thrive at an advanced age. With Waters' inking a two-year deal valued at up to $5.5 million, he's almost certainly being pegged for a starting role in New England.

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound Waters has been a model of durability over the past decade, missing only three games since the beginning of the 2002 season, starting all 141 games he's appeared in during that nine-year stretch. What's more, stats suggest there's little reason to worry about the five-time Pro Bowler, especially coming off a dominant 2010 campaign in which he earned his latest trip to Honolulu.

According to stats logged by Pro Football Focus, Waters didn't give up a single sack in 1,065 regular-season snaps last season. In fact, he allowed a mere eight QB pressures and had the second best pressure-per-snap percentage of guards who took at least 50 percent of their team's snaps (behind only Cincinnati's Bobbie Williams).

Overall, PFF graded Waters as the 12th best guard in the league last year (among those who played at least 25 percent of their team's total snaps), eight spots ahead of Stephen Neal (10 QB pressures in 503 snaps) and 22 spots ahead of Dan Connolly (17 QB pressures in 812 snaps). Neal has since retired and Connolly currently is out of action with an ankle injury.

Two caution flags appear though: First, over the final two weeks of the regular season and in the Chiefs' wild-card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, Waters struggled. He allowed seven QB pressures, three QB hits and a postseason sack in that span. Was it the start of a decline or simply the result of the rigors of a long season?

The other question is how Waters will react to moving to right guard with the left guard spot in New England held by Logan Mankins.

Those questions need to be answered -- and quickly -- with the Patriots' 2011 season opener set for next Monday in Miami. Given New England's injury situation on the interior line, it's possible Waters will slide into a starting role immediately and be given the chance to prove he's still an elite player in the league.

One more question: What jersey number will Waters choose? He has worn No. 54, which hasn't been used in New England since Tedy Bruschi's retirement.

Also on Sunday, the Patriots announced the release of long snapper James Dearth and offensive lineman Steve Maneri, clearing room for Waters. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss reports the Patriots claimed long snapper Danny Aiken off waivers from the Bills to fill that void.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.