FOXBOROUGH — Like so many other rookies who go undrafted, Josh Kline can look back at his introduction to life in the NFL and sum it up with one word.
The first-year offensive lineman from Mason, Ohio, has experienced the widest of spectrums that can come with his chosen profession, condensed in a span of just a few months. Since September, Kline has been released, re-signed to the practice squad, promoted to the 53-man active roster, in uniform but not on the field for the Patriots’ season opener, released again, re-signed again to the practice squad, promoted again to the active roster, then played in five games in a reserve role.
Kline’s season-long roller coaster reached its peak last Sunday, when he made his first start, at left guard. It’s the position usually manned by Logan Mankins, but Mankins was bumped outside to left tackle, taking over for Nate Solder, who had sustained concussions in consecutive games.
That left Kline, who arrived at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium with only 33 offensive snaps in his NFL career, protecting Tom Brady’s blind side. It must have worked well enough, because the Patriots rushed for 142 yards and Brady was sacked just twice in a 41-7 win.
The postgame scene was something Kline will never forget.
“I was telling people it was surreal just getting back into that locker room and high-fiving guys, putting that AFC East hat and that AFC East championship shirt on,” said Kline, who played all 67 offensive snaps in Baltimore.
“It was just a surreal moment for me, and I was glad I did a decent job and helped my team win. That’s been the highlight — getting my first start in a critical game, and helping my team win.”
It’s also something Kline couldn’t have predicted a few months ago. He was hoping he’d be a late-round draft pick coming out of Kent State, but knew there was a much greater chance that he’d become an undrafted free agent.
When he did, he was already on the Patriots’ radar.
“[Offensive assistant coach] Brian Daboll worked him out in the spring and I think that was part of the impetus of our interest in him,” Bill Belichick said. “He was kind of on and off the roster a little bit early in the year.”
The toughest part, Kline said, was spending weeks on the practice squad when he could have been signed away by another team.
“Thank God that didn’t happen,” Kline said. “That’s probably been the low point, because you just don’t know.”
Before the injuries, the Patriots were a familiar group on the offensive line, with all five starters returning from last season. Then right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was lost for the season in the Oct. 27 win over Miami, and now Solder has missed a game. Mankins, right guard Dan Connolly, and center Ryan Wendell are the only linemen to start all 15 games.
It’s a group, along with veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, that Kline has been able to learn from. Kline acknowledged that the jump from college to the NFL is a big one, with the game faster, the mental preparation and learning aspect much more detailed, and the Patriots using a different technique from what Kline did at Kent, which has meant altering his footwork.
It has taken time to get comfortable. Not that Kline is there yet.
Asked for an example, Kline said, “On certain blocks, stepping with my inside instead of my outside foot, which is what we did a lot in college.
“Coach Scar has helped me, and some of the other guys. Sometimes I still have some trouble with it, just because sometimes you think about just the play and not your footwork, and it’s not muscle memory yet for me.”
Whether Kline gets the start Sunday for the regular-season finale against Buffalo remains to be seen. Solder has practiced this week, and if he can go, Mankins will move back to left guard. But the Patriots know that if needed, Kline can do the job.
Considering where Kline was early in the season — here one week, gone the next — it’s a nice development.
“Without sounding selfish, I’m just trying to improve every day,” said Kline. “I think I’m getting better every day, and I’m showing the coaches that.
“Honestly, a year ago, I was just looking to get that shot to make a team. I wouldn’t have expected me to be a starter last week. I’m definitely blessed.”