Future focus: Center & guard

Fifth in a series of positional "look-aheads" for the Patriots:

Center/guard: Dan Koppen (center), Dan Connolly (center/guard), Stephen Neal (guard), Ryan Wendell (center/guard), Rich Ohrnberger (guard), Thomas Austin (guard)

Stat check: Koppen started all 16 games and was the trigger-man on 310 shotgun snaps that resulted in a pass attempt, the eighth highest total in the NFL. Koppen didn’t have a botched shotgun snap this season, a key stat because of how often the Patriots use the shotgun.

First instinct: Logan Mankins is likely to receive the franchise tag and Neal, who is scheduled to earn $3 million, is unlikely to be back at that high figure.

Storyline not to be overlooked: Potential big changes at center and guard. Mankins and Neal represented the top of the depth chart at guard. Meanwhile, Koppen enters the final year of his contract, so grooming a potential replacement at center could be on the team’s radar.

Future: Guard is arguably most wide open position on the roster and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots address it with an early draft pick because of the uncertainty of Mankins’ situation. Connolly is a Russ Hochstein-type option that winning teams need to have; he’s signed through 2011. Wendell, Ohrnberger and Austin have all came up through the pipeline and will be given a chance to emerge.

Final thought: There are plenty of examples of draft picks stepping right in and making an impact at center and guard -- Maurkice Pouncey (No. 18, Steelers, 2010), Alex Mack (No. 21, Browns, 2009), Ben Grubbs (No. 29, Ravens, 2007), Nick Mangold (No. 29, Jets, 2006) and Chris Snee (No. 34, Giants, 2004) to name a few – so it’s a realistic expectation for the Patriots to find an immediate starter early in the draft.

Your thoughts: What do you think the Patriots should do at center/guard this offseason? Re-sign Logan Mankins at all costs? Set a firm line on Mankins and don’t budge? Is it time for a change at center? Share your thoughts in the comments section.