The New England Patriots are going to rely on Marcus Cannon more than they would want to in 2016, since it looks like starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is destined for the injured reserve.
It is normal if you are feeling panic or dread at this news. Cannon has been criticized for poor level of play over the past two seasons under offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo. Whenever Cannon is on the field, it’s because one of the starters- left tackle Nate Solder or Vollmer- is hurt.
But one piece of information caught my eye recently and forced me to go back to the tape. Emphasis my own.
“Based on [Cannon’s] performance over the last two years, the Patriots could be in for a rough year at RT,” Pro Football Focus (PFF) analyst Thomas Maney writes. “Cannon graded below-average in both facets over that span, with an overall grade that ranked 61st at the position in 2015. His pass protection has been a particular issue; he ranked 44th of 59 qualifying tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season.
“It is notable, however, that Cannon has spent time at four different positions on the offensive line in recent seasons, so keeping him in the same spot could yield better results in 2016. A closer look at his 2015 performance also reveals that the bulk of his negative grade was concentrated in only a handful of poor games—most of the time, he was not the liability that his season grades would suggest.”
Cannon has been asked to play both tackle and both guard spots over the past two seasons as the Patriots have tried to hold their offensive line together with duct tape and chewing gum. But despite moving around the entire line and becoming synonymous with pain, PFF is saying that Cannon was not a “liability” for most of the season.
And we’re all about context here at Pats Pulpit, so I reached out to see what those “poor games” happened to be. I think the results are pretty interesting.
According to PFF, Cannon had four really bad games in 2015.
“If those 4 games were removed, he would have had a slightly above average overall grade for the season,” PFF analyst Kiernan Hogan wrote in an e-mail, while also highlighting his performance against J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans as one of his bright spots on the year.
I watched each game to see if we could construct a narrative.
1. Week 5 at Dallas Cowboys
This is the game that left tackle Nate Solder was lost with torn biceps. So Cannon was thrust off the sideline into a game against Greg Hardy, and into a position that doesn’t align with his strengths.
“[Cannon] has played other positions, can play other positions, but I think this [right tackle] is his best position,” head coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday. “All of those other moves are really part of another – wasn't the idea of like ‘We need to move Marcus'. There were other circumstances and because of his athleticism, his intelligence, his versatility, a lot of times he was the guy making the move.”
“I think he's probably a little more in the right tackle mold, but he can play left tackle,” Belichick continued. “He would play it a little differently than [Matt] Light played it or maybe [Nate] Solder plays it. I'd say he's a true swing-tackle but with right tackle probably being his better positon, but I think he can play left tackle.”
Here’s one of Cannon’s first snaps at left tackle in the game, where Hardy has no problem getting by Cannon to force a fumble.
I should note that this was a rotation at left tackle. Solder was hurt later in the game, which forced Cannon into a full time role. He stayed out of the headlines for most of the game, but he had a few really ugly moments that really put a damper on his outing
But, of course, this was his first time thrust into a full time role. He was hit with a bad case of turf toe early on against the Colts in week 6, which sidelined him until...
2. Week 11 vs Buffalo Bills
Yes, Cannon’s other bad week was his first game back from a serious case of turf toe. He lined up against a good pass rusher in Jerry Hughes and a great defensive tackle in Marcell Dareus for the majority of the day, which is a brutal day in the office.
There were times where the Bills made him look silly:
And times where they dismissed him with a flick of their wrist:
Those are definite negatives. When I was watching, though, I felt like Cannon was being overly protective of left guard Shaq Mason in the passing game, because Bills head coach Rex Ryan had a field day toying with Mason’s inexperience in pass protection.
There were some bright spots, too. He had a nice block to remove Hughes from the play- and he did this multiple times throughout the day:
And he showed off agility that is impressive for a player of his size:
The 6’5, 335 pound Cannon was still showing the effects of turf toe, though, and struggled to have clean drops on a consistent basis.
But, like the game against Hardy, facing off against Dareus and Hughes every single snap is nothing to sneeze at.
3. Week 16 at New York Jets
The Jets won this game in overtime, but there were some obvious handicaps throughout the evening. The Patriots were without wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They did not have running backs Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount.
The Patriots also lost left tackle Sebastian Vollmer early in the game, and then lost his replacement LaAdrian Waddle in the 4th quarter. The Patriots even pulled left guard Shaq Mason from the game on the final drive, kicked center Bryan Stork over to guard, and brought center David Andrews off the bench.
In other words, the offensive line was a total disaster. Cannon had to play against Muhammad Wilkerson, possibly the best non-J.J. Watt defensive tackle in the league, and Leonard Williams.
While Cannon could have done a better job, Quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski were the only year-long starters that were available for the offense that day. No one looked good this day.
4. AFC Championship Game at Denver Broncos
No one is surprised by this. Cannon was demolished by Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, Demarcus Ware, and almost every single defender that lined up against him.
Center Bryan Stork was tipping the snap because he needed to duck his head to see where Brady was standing. The Broncos caught on quickly and that was the end of the Patriots offense. I think that DeGuglielmo and the coaching staff deserve a lot of the blame for not recognizing the tipped snap and changing it up, and for not being better prepared for a silent count.
But Cannon was bad. Josh Kline was the only other lineman to grade worse than Cannon, and Kline had a bum shoulder.
And maybe Josh Kline is a good comparison. Remember that Kline got his start with the Patriots by squaring off against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Kyle Williams, and Wilkerson. He’s a perfectly adequate player, but he will lose battles to those that are at the top in the league, and he’s had injuries that temporarily dropped him into replacement level status.
I think Cannon falls into that category. He’ll be a fine option at right tackle, and he should be even better with coach Dante Scarnecchia in charge. Cannon will become more comfortable when he’s not switching positions every other week.
Cannon’s worst games involve serious injuries, either to himself or to those around him. He came off the bench for Solder and struggled, he was bad in his first game back from turf toe, and he watched Vollmer, Waddle, and Mason go to the sideline against the Jets. He was just bad against the Broncos, but so was every offensive line against Denver in the playoffs.
Other than those injuries and the Denver buzz saw, he was “slightly above average.”
Cannon is not a great player, but he’s agile, he’s strong, and he’s finally healthy. He’s been pretty good this preseason and there’s no reason to think that won’t carry over to the regular season. He could be the perfectly adequate offensive lineman that the Patriots need.