Patriots Mailbag: How Will Trent Brown Fit Back Into O-Line Equation?

Plus: Who are the contenders and pretenders in the AFC?

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Time for another New England Patriots mailbag. This week, we tackle:

— The ramifications of Trent Brown’s impending return

— New England’s banged-up running back room

— AFC contenders and pretenders

… and more. Let’s dive in:

@britsoxer
Now the o-line appears set after initial struggles, will the return of Trent brown upset the balance that has been found?

@DonaldPullen4
Do you agree that moving Trent Brown to LT would solidify Patriots O-Line? I believe Onwenu is an all-Pro in the makings at RT.

@Ashley1992_
Hi Zack, Good to hear Trent Brown is back at practice. When he comes back, what do you envision to be our starting O-line?
Bunch of Trent Brown-related questions this week. No surprise there. The big offensive tackle’s return to practice Wednesday was a major development.

Brown hasn’t played since the first drive of New England’s season opener, and before this week, he hadn’t practiced since Oct. 1, spending the last 4 1/2 weeks on injured reserve with a lingering calf ailment. That injury plunged the Patriots’ offensive line into chaos, with four different replacements starting games before the team finally settled on a reliable starting five.

Their solution: shifting Mike Onwenu to right tackle and inserting Ted Karras at left guard. The Patriots had shown a reluctance to move Onwenu, whom they viewed as their ideal Joe Thuney successor, but the decision paid off. Onwenu and Karras both have played well in their new roles, and New England’s O-line as a whole has stabilized after struggling to keep Mac Jones upright for the first several weeks of the season.

The Patriots have another 19 days to add Brown to their 53-man roster before he would revert to season-ending IR, so he might not be activated ahead of this Sunday’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns. But once he is, the Patriots will have a difficult decision to make.

Do they restore their initial O-line, with Brown back at right tackle and Onwenu at left guard? Do they insert Brown at left tackle over Isaiah Wynn, whose play has declined this season? (And would the latter involve bumping Wynn inside or sending him to the bench?) Or do they choose to simply stick with what’s working and keep Brown out of the lineup, using him a swing tackle for the time being?

The “Brown for left tackle” campaign has considerable support among fans and media members, and that’s understandable. He was great there in 2018, and Wynn has been less than impressive this season. It is worth noting, though, that Wynn has shown marked improvement in recent weeks.

Over his three starts since returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list — a period that coincides with the Patriots’ three-game win streak — Wynn is Pro Football Focus’s second-highest-graded run blocker among offensive tackles. Onwenu ranks fourth.

Wynn was at least partially responsible for the strip sack Jones took in last week’s win over the Carolina Panthers, but he’s been better in pass protection, too. PFF has him down for four pressures allowed over the last three games: one sack, two quarterback hits and one hurry. He surrendered at least three pressures in each of his first four starts this season.

Onwenu also has been stout in pass pro. In four games since his shift to right tackle (three starts, one relief appearance), he’s allowed four pressures and no sacks in 126 pass-blocking snaps. His overall PFF grade is third-best among tackles, trailing only San Francisco’s Trent Williams and Dallas’ Tyron Smith. Onwenu was very good in that spot as a sixth-round rookie last season, too, so his sample size is significant.

There’s no easy answer here. But after seeing how dead-set the Patriots initially were on keeping Onwenu at left guard, the most likely setup once Brown returns is the one with which New England opened the season: Wynn, Onwenu, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Brown.

@IanMBudding
Are the chances of a full RB room looking good for Sunday? Are Harris and Stevenson on track to play or will we know their status today and tomorrow based on their participation in practice?

Still TBD on that. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson both were in concussion protocol as of Thursday, and head injury recoveries can be difficult to predict. Some players clear protocol in a few days. Others take weeks.

I will say the fact the Patriots have not added another running back either to their 53-man roster or their practice squad (despite having an open P-squad spot) suggests to me that they expect at least one of Harris and Stevenson to be available Sunday. But again, that’s no certainty at this stage.

We’ll have a better idea of their statuses after Friday’s practice. If both are unavailable the Patriots would be left with just two available backs: Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor, plus fullback Jakob Johnson. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see tight end Jonnu Smith take some snaps at running back, a la Cordarrelle Patterson in 2018.

Smith has taken four handoffs this season, including two from a running back alignment.

@MatthewParker0
With Myles Bryant?s play improving a lot this year do the patriots looks to move on form Jonathan Jones in the offseason
It’s possible. I really like what I’ve seen from Bryant since the Patriots called him up from the practice squad, and he’ll be a lot cheaper than Jones, who’s set to make close to $8.2 million next season in the final year of his contract. Jones has been a very good player for the Patriots too, though, and I don’t think they’d be in any rush to trade him.

I actually view the versatile Bryant as the most likely internal replacement for Devin McCourty if the veteran safety retires or signs elsewhere after this season. Roughly 40 percent of his NFL snaps to date have come at free safety, per Pro Football Reference.

Regardless, Bryant certainly has softened the blow of Jones’ season-ending shoulder injury. Though he’s had a few hiccups, his coverage, pass-rushing and open-field tackling have been assets, and he seems to make two or three plays each game that jump off the screen.

@jchizz
With such a congested playoff picture in the AFC, do you see any obvious contenders or pretenders, particularly amongst the 5-win teams?
Good question. There currently are nine teams in the AFC with exactly five wins. That’s more than half the conference.

Which ones are for real? I’d put the Buffalo Bills in that category, even though they’ve underachieved thus far and Josh Allen hasn’t looked like the MVP candidate he was last year. The Browns are a formidable team when everyone’s healthy (which they currently are not). And I can’t yet write off the Chiefs, even though they’ve stunk for long stretches.

Outside of those, it’s kind of a crapshoot. The Raiders feel like a house of cards to me. The Chargers looked overmatched against the Patriots and got blown out by the Ravens. The Steelers needed a barrage of idiotic penalties to beat the Bears. The Bengals lost to the Jets and then got killed by the Browns. The Broncos have caught my attention lately, but I don’t think they have the talent to be legit contenders.

My big takeaway from looking at this AFC logjam is that none of these five-win teams are definitively, unequivocally better than the Patriots. Not even the Bills, whose lead atop AFC East is down to a half-game. This should be a fun second half.

@Trez4Dayz333
What position would you like to see the pats take in the first round of the draft was today

It’s not sexy, but probably offensive tackle. Wynn, whose 2022 salary was guaranteed once the Patriots picked up his fifth-year option, could be gone after next season (or sooner); Brown is on a one-year deal; and the team seems to prefer playing Onwenu at guard if possible. The long-term plan there is cloudy.

Cornerback is a definite need, too, but the Patriots have only drafted one of those in the first round during the Bill Belichick era (McCourty, who later moved to safety). Eleven of their 19 first-round choices under Belichick have been either O-linemen or front-seven defenders.

@CAshNEPatriots
You should make a TikTok called #CoxToks

As someone who always appreciates a good pun, I approve of that idea. Unfortunately, TikTok is the first social media platform that I flat-out do not understand and have never interacted with. Guess that means I’m officially #old.

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