Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month in Indianapolis, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2019, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.
Next up: the offensive line.
C David Andrews
OT Yodny Cajuste
OT Marcus Cannon
OT Korey Cunningham
G Hjalte Froholdt
G Shaq Mason
OT Isaiah Wynn
G Najee Toran (practice squad)
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
G/T Jermaine Eluemunor (restricted)
G/C James Ferentz
G/C Ted Karras
OT Marshall Newhouse
G Joe Thuney
There’s only one valid choice here: Thuney, who might have been the Patriots’ best offensive player at any position in 2019. A second-team All-Pro for the first time, the 27-year-old was Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest-graded guard this season, trailing only Brandon Brooks, Quenton Nelson, Zack Martin and Marshal Yanda. He earned PFF’s third-highest pass-blocking grade among players at his position, started every game for the fourth consecutive year, surrendered just one sack and didn’t commit a single penalty in 1,192 snaps.
Now, he’s likely on his way out of Foxboro. Thuney will be the top guard available when free agency opens March 18, and with the Patriots already paying Mason $10 million per year, the odds of him re-signing are slim.
Mason, one of the league’s best guards in 2018, was uncharacteristically shaky for much of this season before stabilizing down the stretch.
Cannon gutted through injuries and illness to start 15 games at right tackle but surrendered six sacks, per PFF, his most since 2015.
Newhouse allowed six of his own, facing a tornado of criticism from Patriots fans during his time as Wynn’s temporary replacement at left tackle.
Speaking of Wynn, the 2018 first-round draft pick has played in just nine of a possible 36 games over his two NFL seasons. He’ll need to prove he can stay healthy moving forward.
Cunningham and Eluemunor, acquired in preseason trades, totaled just 88 offensive snaps between them. The former was active for just one game; the latter fell behind Ferentz on the depth chart and hardly saw the field.
The Patriots also got nothing out of 2019 draft picks Cajuste (third round) and Froholdt (fourth), as both missed the entire season with injuries. Cajuste has yet to even participate in his first NFL practice.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Who replaces Dante Scarnecchia? That’s question No. 1 for this unit. The legendary O-line guru announced his retirement during Super Bowl week, leaving the Patriots with a gaping hole to fill on their coaching staff. Moving on without one of the NFL’s most respected position coaches will be challenging, but New England does have a few potential internal replacements in coaching assistant Carmen Bricillo and assistant running backs coach Cole Popovich. Both have worked closely with Scarnecchia and the offensive line in the past, with Bricillo doing so this season.
2. Who replaces Joe Thuney? The Patriots likely drafted Froholdt with this transition in mind, but he looked raw in his first NFL training camp before suffering a season-ending injury during the preseason. At this point, it’s unclear whether the Arkansas product would be ready to start come September. The most desirable option would be for Karras — who spent three seasons as the team’s top interior O-line backup before stepping in for Andrews at center this season — to slide into Thuney’s spot, but he’s set to hit free agency, as well, and could fetch starter’s money elsewhere. Another potential fix would be to bump Wynn inside, but that would require the Patriots to find yet another left tackle. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots use a 2020 draft pick on an interior lineman.
3. Can David Andrews return? After missing all of this season with blood clots in his lungs, New England’s starting center and co-captain said last month he’s “optimistic” about his chances of playing in 2020. Though Karras performed admirably in his stead, having Andrews back would be a huge boost for New England’s O-line, especially with Thuney likely gone.
4. How can the Patriots improve their tackle depth? The Patriots signed Jared Veldheer last offseason with the intention of making him their swing tackle behind Wynn and Cannon. Then, Veldheer abruptly retired, Dan Skipper and Cole Croston failed to earn roster spots, Cajuste never made it back from pre-draft surgery and Wynn landed on injured reserve in Week 2, forcing Newhouse, who’d been signed off the street days earlier, to become the team’s starting left tackle for half a season.
That can’t happen again this year. The Patriots need to do a better job of shoring up their tackle depth, which could mean using a high draft pick on the position this spring. They currently have four tackles under contract for 2020, and all four have question marks: Wynn has a lengthy injury history; Cannon will be 32 and is coming off a less-than-stellar season; Cajuste hasn’t suited up since undergoing quad surgery last March; and Cunningham spent nearly the entire season as a healthy scratch, failing to crack the gameday roster even amid Newhouse’s struggles.
Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images