We currently have no idea who will protect Mac Jones’ blindside during Saturday’s game between the Patriots and Bills. And while that certainly isn’t a good thing, it also is far down on the list of concerns for New England in the wild-card matchup.
Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn didn’t practice all week and is questionable for Saturday night’s game in Buffalo due to hip and ankle injuries. Wynn left last Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins with an ankle issue and feels like a longshot to suit up for the Patriots on wild-card weekend.
However, if Wynn is unable to go, the Patriots shouldn’t suffer much — if at all — on the offensive line. At least, if they lose to the Bills, it likely won’t be because of whether Wynn played.
The 2018 first-round pick has been a major disappointment this season. Wynn missed all of his rookie season and half of his sophomore campaign due to various injuries. But he impressed in 10 games in 2020, fueling optimism that 2021 would see the Georgia product finally emerge as a franchise left tackle.
It didn’t happen.
Wynn enjoyed some solid performances during the regular season, but also was maddeningly inconsistent and by far the least reliable of New England’s starting offensive linemen. Among the five regular starters, Wynn gave up the most sacks (six), total quarterback pressures (28), committed the most penalties (nine) and provided the worst pass-blocking efficiency (96.5). David Andrews ranked second in pressures allowed with 17 — a significant gap — while Shaq Mason committed the second-most penalties with four. (All stats via Pro Football Focus.)
So, it really wasn’t close. Wynn was the Patriots’ worst starting offensive lineman this season. You could craft a defense while citing his PFF ranking (33rd among all tackles), but his respectable grade of 74.5 was inflated by a trio of strong performances against the awful New York Jets (81.0), undermanned Tennessee Titans (81.5) and terrible Jacksonville Jaguars (84.3). If you remove those three games, Wynn would have an overall grade of 62.3, which would place him 66th among all tackles.
The absence of Wynn would be a major problem if the Patriots didn’t have a solid backup option, but they do in Justin Herron, who played well after taking over at left tackle last Sunday.
Herron started four games this season, with two coming at right tackle in place of Trent Brown and two at left tackle in place of Wynn. His first start at left tackle came in Week 5 against the Houston Texans, with Wynn on the reserve/COVID-19 list, with the second coming the following week against the Dallas Cowboys, despite Wynn being available.
Herron’s two games at right tackle did not go well, nor did his start against Dallas. He was benched against the Cowboys, with Wynn eventually replacing him and arguably playing worse. But Herron played very well against Houston, allowing just one pressure while playing 100% of the offensive snaps.
Herron’s playing time declined after the Dallas game but ticked up over the final two weeks — with encouraging results. He was great in 14 snaps against the Jaguars (not like that means much) and, again, was more than serviceable against the Dolphins’ capable front seven in the season finale.
The Bills have a strong defense, but their strength is in the secondary rather than up front. If New England’s offensive line, which dominated Buffalo in the Week 13 wind-chilled classic, loses the trench war Saturday, it will be because it’s as unprepared and lacking in physicality as it was in the Week 16 rematch. Talent, including that of Herron, will not be the issue.
Far more important are the statuses of safety Kyle Dugger, rookie defensive lineman Christian Barmore and linebacker Dont’a Hightower. All three are questionable for Saturday’s game and all are pivotal pieces in the Patriots defense.
If any of those players can’t go or are at all limited, New England will have a tougher time making up for it than it would with Wynn.