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Patriots OL coach Dante Scarnecchia explains how OT Marcus Cannon has improved in 2016

The Patriots right tackle is looking like a franchise starter.

New England Patriots RT Marcus Cannon is not the most important free agent for the franchise. He’s not even close. He trails the likes of LB Dont’a Hightower, ED Jabaal Sheard, and CB Malcolm Butler.

But after two seasons of being treated like a month-old compost pile under OL coach Dave DeGuglielmo, Cannon has found his old magic that earned him his first contract extension under then-and-now OL coach Dante Scarnecchia. And I think Cannon deserves to be in the discussion as a priority free agent for the Patriots after this season.

The 28-year-old Cannon has been starting since franchise RT Sebastian Vollmer was placed on the physically unable to perform list with a long list of serious injuries. Vollmer is also a free agent after this season, but will turn 33 before the start of the 2017 season.

In a year with an awful tackle draft class (the #2 tackle prospect Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey has decided to return to college, leaving Alabama’s Cam Robinson as the only round 1 tackle prospect), and where the free agency class is not much better (Cannon is likely one of the top 5 free agent offensive tackles) re-signing Cannon at roughly $5.5-6.5 million per year makes more sense than starting from scratch with a new player.

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia seems to think we’re only seeing the beginning of an improved Cannon and that the best is yet to come.

“The improvement we've noticed has really been this year,” Scarnecchia said via ESPN. “We asked him to play a different way and do things differently. He's such a good guy, he really tries to do them that way, and I think he's made great strides. He's improved over the course of this season, and that is all you can ask of any player. He's a big man that moves very well and uses his hands much better in pass protection. He can be a real force in the run game, so I'm pleased with where he is. But neither one of us is satisfied, so we just keep moving forward."

Cannon has turned from turnstile to cornerstone as he ranks as a top 10 run blocker, per Pro Football Focus, with head coach Bill Belichick giving special praise to Cannon’s conditioning this year. Scarnecchia points to improved technique that disappeared under DeGuglielmo.

“He hasn’t used his length,” Scarnecchia said. “His arms are really long, but he doesn’t use them like a guy that has long arms needs to use them. The more you keep the defenders out and away from you, instead of letting them get into your body and grab things, the better off you’re going to be at tackle. He seems to grasp that very well and embrace it. If he will continue to play that way, he’ll be fine. And he has been fine.”

We highlighted the difference in coaching style between DeGuglielmo and Scarnecchia earlier in the year. “Googe” preferred his linemen to block with narrower bases and while leaning forward. This allowed more power when running forward, but it left his linemen open to double moves and vulnerable to outside speed rushers in the passing game.

Leaning forward also negated the value of the long arms of the tall offensive tackles. Scarnecchia is using that length to his advantage by using a neutral base and allowing the tackles to steer pass rushers outside the pocket, instead of having to lunge backwards to get in front of the defender.

Last week we saw a lapse in play by LT Nate Solder for arguably the first time all season, but overall the line is trending in the right direction- and Cannon might be the most consistent of them all.