Only three years ago, the New England Patriots’ interior offensive line stood with a rookie center by the name of Bryan Stork and a pair of veteran guards bookending him in Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell.
It was a trio rooted with former undrafted practice-squadders by way of Fresno State and Southeast Missouri State, as well as a fourth-round Rimington Trophy winner out of Florida State. And it was one that combined to start a total of 36 games during the 2014 regular season under then-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo – not to mention Super Bowl XLIX.
Time has had its way since then.
Stork and Connolly are retired and Wendell was last a member of the Carolina Panthers. The three spots they once occupied have all been filled, and by players who very well could have been watching the Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks from their college apartments.
David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney weren’t in the NFL back in February of 2015. Now they make up the next generation in Foxborough. The average age of trio is 23.6 years old, but youth isn’t always synonymous with inexperience.
It wasn’t last year.
Despite camp competition from the likes of Stork, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper and rookie sixth-round pick Ted Karras, it would be Andrews, Mason and Thuney who got the nod in the end.
That inside three went on to tally a collective 3,245 snaps during the 2016 regular season, and huddled alongside one another up through Super Bowl LI. They started all but one game together. And with the 69-year-old Dante Scarnecchia overseeing, the combination was part of a front that ranked fifth in the league in sacks allowed, tied for 10th in quarterback hits allowed, seventh in rushing yards, and fifth in rushing touchdowns.
There would be no semblance of a rotation. What was encountered was worked through, growing pains and all.
Andrews, an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2015, nearly went wire-to-wire for the Patriots as a rookie before coming close again in his second campaign. The 24-year-old center logged 99.6 percent of the offensive snaps by the end of Week 17, and turned his tough, dependable play into pay by May when he earned a three-year, $9 million contract extension.
Mason, a fourth-round pick from the same class, wasn’t far behind in terms of participation in 2016. The 23-year-old guard via the Georgia Tech spread-option played in all 16 contests and started 15 of them. Setting up shop on the B-gap shoulder of right tackle Marcus Cannon, he accounted for 90.9 percent of the offensive snaps to follow up a 10-start rookie showing.
And then there was Thuney, checking in as the newest of the new. After lining up at all five spots during his North Carolina State tenure, the 24-year-old cut his teeth next to left tackle Nate Solder as a rookie in New England. Thuney started every game during his inaugural season, and despite wearing on as the months did, the third-rounder finished with as many snaps – 1,114 – as Andrews.
It is solid ground to build on if you’re the Patriots.
The body of work isn’t complete – Thuney received a 71.8 grade from Pro Football Focus while Andrews and Mason garnered a 79.8 and an 84, respectively, in 2016 – but there is time to make it so. Mason is under contract through the 2018 season, and Thuney and Andrews are not slated to become an unrestricted free agents until after 2019 and 2020.
That continuity in the middle of things will tend to get underdiscussed during an offseason in which the Patriots added the likes of cornerback Stephon Gilmore, tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, defensive end Kony Ealy and wideout Brandin Cooks. It’ll tend to get underdiscussed when the organization drafts a pair of offensive tackles and waits until after the seventh round to pursue interior depth.
That’s just as well for Andrews, Mason and Thuney entering 2017.
If all goes according to plan, they won’t hear their names discussed much once September arrives, either. They are the plan.