Replacing Marcus Cannon will be no small feat for the New England Patriots.
Running back Rex Burkhead, Cannon’s teammate for the last three seasons, called the right tackle’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns a “huge” loss for the Patriots’ offense.
“Marcus opting out, he’s always been a huge piece to our running game,” Burkhead said in a video conference Wednesday after the Patriots’ first training camp practice. “Just his physicality and his intelligence has always been huge. So it’s really the next guy coming in — as it always is here whenever someone’s out — being able to fill that void.”
Cannon has been the Patriots’ primary right tackle since 2016, starting 50 regular-season games and nine playoff contests during that span.
“For five years, Marcus has been right there,” right guard Shaq Mason said. “But I’m eager to have guys step up and see what we can bring. Marcus, I don’t fault him at all for making the right decisions for him and his family, and we’ve got to do our best job moving forward.”
It’s unclear who will take over Cannon’s starting spot this season. The current internal options are Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste, rookie Justin Herron and left guard Joe Thuney, who’s said he’d be willing to switch positions if called upon.
Cajuste and Herron never have appeared in an NFL game. Thuney has played just eight snaps at tackle in at the NFL level. Cunningham had a six-game stint as a starter in Arizona in 2018 but was a healthy scratch for nearly all of last season, seeing action in just one game for the Patriots.
Of that group, Cajuste has the most upside. The 2019 third-round draft pick participated in his first Patriots practice Wednesday after missing his entire rookie season following pre-draft quad surgery.
“I’m excited to see what Yodny can do out there,” Mason said. “He came in and he’s been hurt, but he’s been paying attention. He’s been hands-on, and he’s looking ready, along with the other guys. I’m looking to see all them compete.”
Mason and Burkhead both are focused on helping revive the Patriots’ once-dominant rushing attack this season. With center David Andrews, fullback James Develin and left tackle Isaiah Wynn all missing at least half of the 2019 campaign, New England ranked 18th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (106.4) and 25th in yards per carry (3.8) a year ago.
“As an offensive line, we always take pride in getting the running game going, and last year, I can say we were a bit disappointed in it,” Mason said. “But last year’s last year, and we’re looking forward to putting our best foot forward. It’s a whole new year.”
With COVID-19 wiping out the NFL’s spring practice schedule, the Patriots are just now resuming on-field work. Their first padded practice is scheduled for next Monday.
“We really couldn’t have any run reps during the spring to really mesh that, so that’s what we’re working on now,” Burkhead said. “(We’re) trying to get comfortable and confident with the communication and everything to really set that tone and tempo for us as an offense.”