As the calendar flips to June and the (expected) start of Patriots training camp draws closer, we’re taking a position-by-position look at New England’s 90-man roster.
Next up: the offensive line.
POSITION GROUP BREAKDOWN
Roster locks: C David Andrews, G Shaq Mason, G Joe Thuney, OT Isaiah Wynn
Near locks: OT Yodny Cajuste, OT Marcus Cannon, G Hjalte Froholdt
On the bubble: OT Korey Cunningham, G Jermaine Eluemunor, G/T Justin Herron, G Michael Onwenu, C/G Dustin Woodard
Long shots: G Najee Toran
MOST TO PROVE
Yodny Cajuste/Hjalte Froholdt
Cajuste and Froholdt, third- and fourth-round picks last year, likely will be on the 53-man roster and could enter the season as New England’s swing tackle and top interior backup, respectively. But both remain largely untested after the former missed his entire rookie season (including spring practice and training camp) following pre-draft quad surgery and the latter went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason.
With Andrews now fully recovered after losing his 2019 season to blood clots and Thuney still in town under the franchise tag, the Patriots’ starting O-line should be one of their strongest units. Its depth is a legitimate concern, though — one Cajuste and Froholdt could ease if they establish themselves this summer.
Woodard (seventh round) was drafted later than fellow rookies Onwenu (sixth) and Herron (sixth), but the undersized late-rounder has a real chance of earning a roster spot. With Ted Karras now in Miami, the Patriots currently have no obvious backup for Andrews, whose health will be closely monitored as the season approaches.
Froholdt played some center at Arkansas (three games) but primarily lined up at guard both in college and during his first NFL training camp. Woodard started at least one full season at left guard, right guard and center at Memphis and compares to Andrews both in measurables (6-foot-2, 291 pounds) and in playing style.
Woodard received the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade of any FBS center last season.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can the starting five stay healthy? Wynn, Thuney, Andrews, Mason and Cannon have the potential to form one of the NFL’s best O-lines. But it’s fair to question this unit’s durability.
Wynn sat out his entire first pro season and half of his second. Cannon has missed time in each of his four seasons as a full-time starter, and his play declined in 2019. So did Mason’s as an ankle injury slowed him for much of the year. Andrews is coming off a serious illness. The only no-doubter here is Thuney, a 2019 second-team All-Pro who’s started every game since his career began in 2016.
With little proven depth up front, the Patriots need to keep their top options on the field. Speaking of …
2. Who will back them up? Rather than targeting veteran free agents this offseason, the Patriots chose to restock the lower levels of their O-line depth chart with late-round draft picks.
The eight players currently vying for reserve spots have started a total of nine NFL games: six by Cunningham, three by Eluemunor. Those two combined to play just 88 offensive snaps last season. The other six have yet to make their regular-season NFL debuts.
The Patriots could look to add another veteran tackle before training camp. They currently have just five on their roster, including Herron, a college tackle who could be moved to guard. The Patriots rostered as many as eight tackles at times during the 2019 preseason and still were forced to trade for Cunningham and sign street free agent Marshall Newhouse after their backup candidates failed to impress.
3. How will the Patriots replace Dante Scarneccia? It appears Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich will share offensive line coach duties this season, but the simple answer to that question is, “You can’t.” Scarnecchia is one of the greatest and most respected assistant coaches in NFL history, and his retirement earlier this year will leave a massive void on the Patriots’ coaching staff.
Scarnecchia was especially skilled at molding young linemen — all five current starters are homegrown talents — and with so many relative newbies in this group, his wisdom and expertise would have been valuable. Bricillo and Popovich have super-sized shoes to fill.