FOXBORO, Mass. — Offensive line is one of the unsexiest positions on the football field and usually doesn’t push the needle much as far as hits, clicks or ratings if we’re being completely open and honest.
But as the Patriots get set to take on the Houston Texans this weekend, the most important player on New England’s injury report isn’t tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Danny Amendola or even linebacker Dont’a Hightower. It’s right tackle Marcus Cannon.
That’s because Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt primarily rushes from the defensive left, meaning it’s the right tackle’s objective to stop him. Cannon has fared well against Watt in the past but is dealing with a concussion and knee injury and hasn’t practiced this week. It seems unlikely he’ll play Sunday against the Texans. To make matters worse for the Patriots, New England’s right tackle also has to deal with Texans pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, who is one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
The Patriots have two options to replace Cannon at starting right tackle: Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. Both players likely will suit up and see action Sunday, but Fleming, who was active over Waddle in Week 2, is more likely to start.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, however, has confidence in both players.
“I feel like we have pretty good depth at tackle and it’s good competition with really all four of those guys,” Belichick said Friday morning of the grouping, including left tackle Nate Solder.
Waddle started 24 games in three seasons with the Detroit Lions before the Patriots claimed him off waivers in 2015. He’s been with the team ever since but played in just four games.
“This year was his best camp, his best year,” Belichick said. “He had a good spring, good training camp and has gotten quite a bit of play time when he was healthy. He missed a little bit of time in camp, as well, but he’s been out there a lot. He’s played on both sides, played well for us.”
The Patriots selected Fleming in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft then waived him at 2015 roster cuts. He passed through waivers unclaimed and started the 2015 season on the practice squad before being re-signed to the active roster a month later. He’s played in 36 games, starting 14 in four seasons.
“He’s been pretty steady and pretty consistent all four years,” Belichick said. “It was a procedural thing that we did to make a roster spot there for a couple of weeks. Once that cleared, we got him back. We weren’t looking to ever move on from him, but nobody works harder than Cam. He works extremely hard. He’s very smart and when you tell Cam, ‘This is what you need to work on,’ then you’re going to see him spending considerable time every day, a half-hour or an hour every day working on those things. He’s a great guy to coach. Really takes his job (serious). He’s very professional and well-prepared, smart. Whatever you ask him to do he really works hard to try to do it just the way you wanted it. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The Patriots could elect to put both players on the right side and take a skill-position player off the field to ensure they’re limiting Watt. The Patriots also could use tight end Dwayne Allen as blocking help on the right side. Even if Cannon plays, it’s likely either Fleming or Waddle would chip in and help block Watt.
As much faith as Belichick might have in Fleming and Waddle, it seems unwise to depend on one of them alone to neutralize a three-time defensive player of the year.
Thumbnail photo via Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports Images
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