The position group charged with protecting Mac Jones will look very different in 2022.
In the first two days of unofficial NFL free agency, the New England Patriots have let their starting left guard (Ted Karras) walk to the Cincinnati Bengals and then traded their starting right guard (Shaq Mason) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fifth-round draft pick.
The Mason trade cleared roughly $7 million in salary cap space — much-needed for a cap-strapped team that, as of Tuesday afternoon, had yet to reach contract agreements with any external free agents. But it also left the Patriots without one of their top offensive players — one of the NFL’s best at his position — and no clear internal replacement.
Talented third-year pro Mike Onwenu is likely to take over one starting guard spot. Perhaps he’ll now slot in at right guard, where he was a three-year starter and dominant pass protector at Michigan. But Onwenu can’t replace both Mason and Karras, and the Patriots don’t have another starting-caliber interior lineman on the roster. Their only other guards are the newly re-signed James Ferentz, 2021 sixth-round pick Will Sherman, CFL import Drew Desjarlais and Yasir Durant, who was a healthy scratch for most of this season.
And Mason and Karras might not be the Patriots’ only offseason losses.
Starting right tackle Trent Brown is set to become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday afternoon. Will New England use the money saved by moving Mason to re-sign Brown? Or will they watch him walk, as well, creating a third hole to fill on their O-line — a line that, remember, also will have a new position coach after Josh McDaniels took Carmen Bricillo with him to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Of the possible internal Brown replacements, only Onwenu has looked like a viable NFL starter on the right side, and he obviously cannot start at both guard and tackle. Justin Heron has performed much better at left tackle, and Yodny Cajuste, Durant and Sherman are bottom-of-the-roster players.
The Patriots surely will make additions to this group in the days and weeks ahead, with offensive line help suddenly vaulting toward the top of their offseason priority list. What form that will take remains to be seen, but New England reportedly is mulling a big splash.
Shortly after the Mason trade went public, the Boston Herald’s Andrew Callahan reported the Patriots are “weighing” a potential trade for Dallas Cowboys tackle La’el Collins.
The 28-year-old Collins is a premier player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’s fifth-best tackle in 2019 and 15th-best in 2021. He also was PFF’s third-highest-graded run blocker this past season, trailing only All-Pro Trent Williams and Pro Bowler Tyron Smith.
Collins started his NFL career at left guard but has been Dallas’ top right tackle for the last five seasons, save for the 2020 campaign, which he missed with a hip injury. He’s on the books for $10 million salaries in 2022, 2023 and 2024.
“Price had been a sticking point,” Callahan reported, “but they’ve now effectively doubled their cap space by trading away Shaq Mason.”
Adding a player of Collins’ caliber would soften the blow of this week’s departures but wouldn’t address all of New England’s O-line shortcomings. With left tackle Isaiah Wynn also entering the final year of his contract, expect the Patriots to study up on both tackles and guards ahead of next month’s NFL draft.
Bill Belichick must hope his new starting five jells quickly, though, and that his new O-line coach (Matt Patricia, perhaps?) can coach them up properly. Keeping Jones, the Patriots’ promising second-year quarterback, upright and protected will be of paramount importance this coming season.