FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots might have a Trent Brown-sized hole to fill on their offensive line this week.
A calf injury knocked Brown out of New England’s season-opening 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins after one series, and the big right tackle did not participate in Monday’s practice, putting his status for Sunday’s matchup with the New York Jets in question.
Reports Monday indicated Brown’s injury is not considered serious, calling him “day to day.” But if he’s not healthy enough to suit up against the Jets, who would replace him in the starting lineup?
Here are four potential options:
Herron, the Patriots’ third tackle, was Brown’s initial replacement against Miami, but he struggled and eventually was benched late in the third quarter. His ouster came after he was flagged for holding, allowed a tackle for loss on a running play and was beaten for a pressure during a drive that ended in a Patriots field goal.
Herron was solid as a reserve and fill-in starter last season (12 appearances, six starts as a sixth-round rookie), but he finished Sunday’s game as New England’s lowest-graded offensive lineman by Pro Football Focus.
Durant relieved Herron and held his own, allowing no pressures on 13 dropbacks in his 23 total snaps. A big body at 6-foot-7, 330 pounds, Durant joined the Patriots just two weeks ago, coming over from the Kansas City Chiefs in an Aug. 31 trade.
“(I’ve seen) progress from when he got here two weeks ago,” offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo said Tuesday. ‘Obviously, he’s been very hard at work to learn the system. It’s a new system for him, a second-year player. Hats off to (assistant O-line coach) Billy Yates for spending a lot of one-on-one time with him in the hours we’re not in actual meetings. We’ll just see how it goes from here.”
The 23-year-old Durant joined the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie last season after starting three years at left tackle at Missouri. He played both tackle and guard for Kansas City, appearing in 11 games with one start.
An afterthought at the outset of training camp, Cajuste played his way into a roster spot with a strong stretch late in the preseason. The 2019 third-round draft pick still has yet to play a single regular-season snap, however. He was inactive for the Dolphins game, and though he was listed as questionable with a hamstring injury, it’s unclear whether his DNP was injury-related or a game-plan decision.
Cajuste mostly played left tackle this summer (74 snaps in the preseason) but did take reps at right tackle, as well (17 snaps).
Asked whether he’s confident Cajuste can contribute if called upon, Bricillo replied: “Yeah, those are obviously the expectations for Yodny.”
“You just evaluate on a week-to-week basis and make a decision as a staff, and you go with it,” he continued. “As an O-line coach, I wish they could all be active and let’s roll, but obviously you do what’s best for the team. Like any of us — like, truly, not to sound like coach-speak. I know I give this to you guys a lot, but every day we’re just trying to come in and just get a little bit better. You don’t want to stay the same. We’re all working at improving on those things that we need to improve upon, and we’ll go with that.”
Cajuste was a top-tier pass protector at West Virginia (three sacks and four QB hits allowed in 31 games), but injuries have defined his NFL career to date. He’s the biggest unknown among the Patriots’ right tackle options.
If the Patriots subscribe to a “play the five best players” approach, Onwenu would be the pick to replace Brown. The 2020 sixth-rounder has been their starting left guard since Joe Thuney left in free agency over the offseason but was very good at right tackle last season, starting 10 games there and finishing as PFF’s eighth-highest-graded tackle.
But Onwenu said Wednesday that he’s hardly taken any tackle reps since the start of training camp, with the Patriots preferring to keep him focused on his current position.
“I haven’t really taken any right tackle snaps,” he said. “… Playing one position is cool. It’s my job. So I’m going to do whatever I’ve got to do.”
It’s unclear whether the Patriots will alter that approach this week with Brown ailing. They do have strong interior depth with Ted Karras as their top guard/center backup.
Regardless of who starts at right tackle, the Patriots will need to do a better job of protecting rookie quarterback Mac Jones in Week 2. Jones performed well under pressure in his first NFL start, but Dolphins defenders hit him nine times — “too many,” center David Andrews said.
New England linemen also were whistled for three penalties: holding calls on Herron and left tackle Isaiah Wynn and an illegal blindside block on right guard Shaq Mason.
“We’ve got to do a little better job protecting (Jones) at times,” Andrews said Monday.
Bricillo concurred, saying he was “disturbed” by the amount of punishment Jones took.
“It’s our job to keep him clean, and we need to do a better job of it,” the position coach said Tuesday. “It comes down to individual fundamentals, and I’m certain myself and the rest of the guys are eager to get out there (Wednesday) and start working on these fundamentals so that we can try to alleviate that or minimize it happening in the future.”