The New England Patriots had an awful offensive line in 2015 so head coach Bill Belichick set about fixing the unit. He brought back offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, traded for Jonathan Cooper, and drafted Joe Thuney and Ted Karras.
While the offensive line is by no means a finished product, Belichick is very happy- and talkative- about the growth he’s seen from these players and the potential they present. Feel free to scroll down to my TL;DR sections beneath the quotes if don’t have time for this.
On Thuney, Belichick says he’s, “really consistent, and he's a smart guy. He's a good technique player, he plays with good footwork, balance, hand placement, he's got good awareness, he sees things well.
“I mean there's room for improvement here; I'm not saying that. For his lack of experience he plays like a pretty experienced player. He has been well-coached both at N.C. State with Coach [Tom] O'Brien and that system when he went in there and obviously with Dante [Scarnecchia].
“He's a good athlete, he's a good football player, and he's got good awareness, good instincts, works well with the other offensive linemen, knowing what guys need help based on what the call is, what the protection is, who the players are and so forth.
“Again, there's room for improvement. There are a lot of things he can learn, but for where he is in his career he has got a pretty good understanding of it. [He's] a pretty smart player.
“I'd say also the fact that he has played all five positions in the end probably works in his favor. Not that he has taken a lot of game-snaps at center but he has been at center, he has played guard, he has been at tackle. Again, I think when you're at guard you understand some of the issues at tackle. When you're a center you can understand some of the issues at guard and vice versa. I don't think those have been bad things for him.”
TL;DR: Thuney is a smart player with good technique. His history playing every spot on the offensive line has helped his mental approach. He can still improve, but he’s doing well for a rookie.
Belichick thinks that this group will continue to improve even if each individual player does not get any stronger or quicker, just due to experience. This is an issue with the line that will go away with time.
“You know, maybe in a way but I'd say the issue is just experience together,” Belichick said, “so you know the more that those guys play together, the more that David [Andrews] and Joe [Thuney] play together the better that will get. Even if neither one of them ever gets any better, them playing together will just - they will get better.
“And they should get better because they're both young players, but you know what I'm saying. Even at their cap there's a level of execution between the two of them, with Nate [Solder], with Shaq [Mason], with Ted [Karras], however it goes, that those guys just haven't played a lot of football together.
“They haven't seen some of the things or some of the players, their opponents, second, third, fourth time around like a real experienced group would do that you could really gain some advantages on that. We're just not there yet. We're getting there but we're just not there.”
TL;DR: The experience of playing together will improve communication and, in turn, line play. Once these youngsters see opponents for the second time around, they’ll be better prepared to handle the challenge.
One player that Belichick considers “very good” is center David Andrews, who was undrafted last season. Belichick thinks that Andrews and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo have developed a good rapport and that they will continue to remain in sync.
“Huge,” Belichick said about the importance of the quarterback-center relationship. “Yeah, it's huge. Yeah, it's a critical relationship, especially in the National Football League and an offense like ours where there's a lot of communications, and protections, and recognition and so forth. Those two guys being on the same page is enormous.
“But David's very good, Jimmy's good. They communicate well, each of them individually and together, and they both understand the importance of it, of not taking something for granted and then ‘Oh I thought it was this,’ and then ‘I thought it was that,’ and then somebody runs free because we weren't on the same page. There's not very much of that, nor should there be. It's critical.
“It's a huge part of both of their jobs, to be able to be in sync with the other positions, the center and the guard, the quarterback and the quarterback to the center.”
TL;DR: Andrews and Garoppolo communicate well to set the correct protections and pass the instructions to the rest of the offense.
Ultimately, all of these young players will continue to improve by remaining in the Patriots’ offensive system. Ted Karras and Shaq Mason are inexperienced pass blockers, and even while Thuney and Andrews have experience in pro style offenses, there is room to grow.
“Well, I'd just say the overall exposure to this type of an offensive system,” Belichick said about Karras’ improvements over the offseason. “Again, different protections, different adjustments, more variety in the running game than what he probably had at Illinois. I'd say definitely more.
“He has played all three interior positions, both guards and center, so again, he's a smart guy. I think some of that playing different positions actually helps him play whatever positions he's playing a little bit better because he understands what's going on around him.
“Again, that's part of the centers job, is to quarterback the whole line, if you will, in terms of line-calls and adjustments that they have to make. We have the same five guys but sometimes how you block them - do you bump him and go to the linebacker? Do you go straight to the linebacker? I mean just how all of that works. There are a lot of fine points in there but they're critical really to the success of that unit and naturally to the success of the play.
“It's just a lot more exposure, a lot of different things that he I would say didn't have a lot of experience with. He has gained a lot, he's smart, he works hard, he understands football concepts well, as Joe does, as David does.
“Shaq's kind of in the same boat coming from the offense he came in, which is they threw the ball five times per game. In terms of protection it's just a whole new world. Those guys have all grown quite a bit in the last year, or two years, whatever the case might be, in terms of systems.
“David obviously came from Brian Schottenheimer's system in Georgia so he had a change of I'd say NFL-type of offensive schematics. But again, I would say in the process of going back to [CSNNE’s Phil Perry]'s point of just getting everybody working together, understanding just collectively how to do things and how to do them more efficiently.”
TL;DR: Exposure to an NFL offense has helped Karras and Mason develop into better players. Thuney, Karras, and Mason all have a mental advantage from playing multiple positions on the line because it allows them to better “understand football concepts.” The most important goal is to continue to develop everyone on the same page.
Belichick seems to have high hopes for this group, and he should. A line with Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Cameron Fleming could be the best grouping the Patriots have had in a few seasons- and they’ll keep getting better.