As the March 15 start of the new NFL league year approach, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the New England Patriots roster.
Who’s returning? Who could be out the door? What are the biggest questions facing each group?
Next up: the offensive line.
IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
2022 PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS GRADES
Onwenu (17 games): Fourth among guards
Andrews (14 games): Seventh among centers
Strange (17 games): 61st among guards
Brown (17 games): 43rd among tackles
McDermott (six games): 46th among tackles
Wynn (nine games): 72nd among tackles
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. How can the Patriots fix their tackle problem? Offensive tackle — specifically, right tackle — was the weakest position on New England’s roster this season, and it’s their most glaring offseason need.
The controversial plan to swap Wynn and Brown failed, and the Patriots wound up starting four different players at right tackle. Wynn, who’d never played the position in the NFL or college, was benched multiple times before ultimately landing on injured reserve in December. It would be a major surprise if he re-signed this offseason.
Brown battled through a lingering illness to play in every game, but his effectiveness fluctuated and he was prone to penalties, with only two NFL players racking up more flags than his 13. There’s an outside chance the Patriots could cut the soon-to-be 30-year-old, as doing so would clear $8 million in salary cap space (with $4.25 million left behind in dead money).
Overall, the performance of the Patriots’ offensive line was substandard in 2022, and beefing up their tackle group is the clearest path to remedying that. They took one step in that direction by re-signing McDermott — who started the final six games and performed better than expected after signing off the Jets’ practice squad — but he’s better suited for a swing tackle role.
The Patriots should be looking to add a proven, starting-caliber veteran through free agency or a trade and a young future starter in the 2023 NFL Draft, plus a few other vets or rookies to fill out the depth chart.
Kansas City’s Orlando Brown Jr. and San Francisco’s Mike McGlinchey headline this year’s crop of free agent tackles and are expected to command big money. Behind them are players like Jacksonville’s Jawaan Taylor and Atlanta’s Kaleb McGary. ESPN’s Matt Bowen this week pegged New England as the best team fit for the 25-year-old Taylor, and the 28-year-old McGary is coming off a career year, grading out as PFF’s fourth-best tackle and second-best run blocker.
As for the draft, the Patriots should strongly consider targeting a tackle with their top pick, which currently sits at No. 14 overall. Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. and Georgia’s Broderick Jones all would be in play at that spot, though all three also could be off the board by then. Prospects of note who should be available a bit later include Oklahoma’s Anton Harrison, Tennessee’s Darnell Wright, North Dakota State’s Cody Mauch and Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron.
2. Can Cole Strange take a Year 2 leap? The Patriots faced a tidal wave of criticism when they drafted Strange — a projected Day 2 pick out of FCS Chattanooga — 21st overall last year, and the young lineman’s roller-coaster rookie season didn’t exactly silence those doubters. But Strange did start every game at left guard for New England and showed improvement as the season progressed, with just one of his five allowed sacks coming after Week 8.
The slender 24-year-old said adding weight and strength will be among his offseason priorities, and he should benefit from having an experienced, focused position coach in Year 2. That was not the case last season, when Matt Patricia was trying to coach the offensive line while also calling plays. Head coach Bill Belichick removed Patricia — who hadn’t coached on offense since 2005 — from both of those jobs after the season.
Onwenu and Andrews already are two of the NFL’s better players at their respective positions. If Strange takes a step forward in 2023, he’d give New England a formidable interior trio.
The Patriots also have two O-line wild cards in Hines and Stueber, their final two picks in last year’s draft. Neither player saw the field as a rookie, with Hines landing on IR with a mysterious injury in October and Stueber spending the entire season on the non-football injury list, though he did make a surprise return to practice in late December.
3. What impact will Adrian Klemm have? As mentioned, the Patriots had not just an inexperienced offensive line coach this season, but an inexperienced O-line coach who also was trying to call plays — a double duty that no one else in the NFL was pulling.
Klemm, a former Patriots player who spent last season running one of college football’s best O-lines at Oregon, should be a much better fit for that job than Patricia was. But he’s also something of an unproven commodity.
The 45-year-old has been a college O-line coach for close to a decade — at SMU, UCLA and Oregon, also holding run game coordinator and/or associate head coach titles in many of those seasons — but has limited NFL coaching experience. He was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ assistant O-line coach for two seasons, then left before the end of his first year as a lead position coach to return to the collegiate ranks.
It remains to be seen whether Billy Yates, who did much of the direct coaching of Patriots linemen this season while Patricia was preoccupied with play-calling, will remain on staff to assist Klemm. As of Wednesday, the Patriots had yet to announce their full 2023 coaching staff, revealing only that Bill O’Brien had come aboard as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.