Justin Herron Takeaways: Which Position Will Sixth-Round Pick Play For Patriots?

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May 13, 2020

The New England Patriots announced Justin Herron as a guard after they selected him in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

But the current makeup of New England’s roster suggests Herron could see time at a different position, as well.

The Patriots entered Wednesday with just four offensive tackles under contract: Marcus Cannon, Isaiah Wynn, Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste.

That’s two starters who’ve dealt with multiple injuries in recent years (Cannon and Wynn), one reserve who appeared in just one game last season despite being fully healthy (Cunningham) and another backup who has yet to take even a single practice rep at the NFL level (Cajuste).

Last summer, the Patriots carried seven tackles into training camp, rostered as many as eight at times during the preseason and still lacked depth at the position once the real games began, prompting them to trade for Cunningham and sign Marshall Newhouse off the street.

We viewed bolstering that unit as an offseason priority Bill Belichick’s club, but thus far, its depth chart has remained unchanged. The Patriots have yet to sign any veteran tackles in free agency, didn’t draft a player who’s projected to play there in the NFL and ignored the O-line entirely when scooping up undrafted free agents.

Which brings us back to Herron. Most pre-draft scouting reports pegged the 24-year-old as a guard at the pro level, but he exclusively played left tackle at Wake Forest, starting a school-record 51 games there over five seasons. (His 2018 campaign ended with a torn ACL in the season opener.)

Herron’s forte is pass protection. He didn’t allow a single sack during his redshirt junior season in 2017, then posted Pro Football Focus’ 13th-highest pass-blocking grade among FBS left tackles last season, surrendering four sacks and 13 total pressures in 552 pass-block snaps after returning from his ACL tear.

Herron is a player whose testing numbers don’t square with his tape. He posted incredibly poor times in the three-cone drill (8.41 seconds, 1st percentile among O-linemen) and short shuttle (4.88 seconds, 25th percentile) at the NFL Scouting Combine but displayed very good in-game quickness, agility and flexibility, moving his feet to keep rushers in front of him.

(Herron did rank in the 93rd percentile in the vertical jump and the 68th percentile in the broad jump, which measure lower-body explosiveness.)

As a run blocker, Herron isn’t overpowering and can look awkward and hesitant when pulling, but he held his own in the ACC. In one game against Florida State that Herron called his best of the 2019 season, the Demon Deacons ran behind him on back-to-back plays inside the 10-yard line during the fourth quarter, resulting in a 7-yard gain and a 2-yard touchdown.

Patriots coaches also surely appreciated Herron’s penchant for maintaining his blocks through the whistle.

“I would like to think my athleticism and my foot quickness stood out, among many of the other things,” Herron said last month in his introductory conference call. “I would like to think how physical I play, as well, also stands out.”

Measuring in at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds at the combine, Herron has a very similar height/weight profile to Joe Thuney (6-5, 304 pre-draft). His 33 1/2-inch arms are 1 1/4 inches longer than Thuney’s, though, and 1/8 of an inch longer than Wynn’s. All three were collegiate tackles whom draft experts viewed as NFL guards. Thuney switched positions. Wynn didn’t.

It’s also worth noting both Thuney and Wynn spent time at guard in college. That wasn’t the case with Herron. He was a left tackle and only a left tackle from his freshman year until Senior Bowl week, when he bumped inside for the NFL evaluators in attendance.

Herron won seven of his 13 practice reps in Mobile, according to PFF, turning in strong efforts against Syracuse’s Alton Robinson and Utah’s Bradlee Anae but struggling against North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge and N.C. State’s Larell Murchison. It’s fair to have concerns about Herron’s play strength after watching some of those Senior Bowl reps.

Herron, who employs a hypnotically robotic pre-snap setup process, also never played in a three-point stance at Wake Forest, so that’ll require an adjustment, especially if he’s asked to bump inside. A reminder: Rookies will receive less on-field instruction this year with the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out spring practice and potentially delaying the start of training camps.

In his post-draft call, Herron said the Patriots told him to prepare to play multiple spots. Proving he can handle tackle and guard responsibilities would boost his chances of earning a roster spot — no guarantee for a player in his draft slot (No. 195 overall).

“The conversations (with the team) were honestly just, ‘Be ready for any positions that we throw you in,’ ” Herron said. “They told me that they?ve seen me play tackle, but they?re also interested to see if I can play any other positions. So that?s kind of what we talked about. I?m happy with any position or positions.”

More Patriots rookie film reviews: Kyle Dugger | Josh Uche | Anfernee Jennings | Devin Asiasi | Dalton Keene | Justin Rohrwasser | Michael Onwenu

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