With opening day almost two months away and training camp not starting until later this month, we are still caught in possibly the most quiet part of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and studying sessions, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with one of the Patriots' starting offensive linemen.
Name: Shaq Mason
Position: Offensive guard
Jersey number: 69
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6’1, 310 lbs.
2016 review: After playing on both the left and right side of the offensive line early in his rookie season, Shaq Mason established himself as the Patriots' starting right guard during the 2015 playoffs. Entering the 2016 season, the Georgia Tech product was therefore the favorite to earn the role again – and over the course of his second NFL offseason he was able to do just that.
Mason's season did not start on the right track, though: During New England's second preseason game, he broke his hand and as a result was forced into a rotational role during the team's first two games of the season. From week three onwards, however, Mason played all but a handful of the Patriots' offensive snaps and ultimately finished the regular season with a 91.0% playing time percentage (1,019 of 1,120) and was also on the field for all 242 of New England's postseason snaps.
While Mason was hampered by his hand injury during the first half of the season, he finished the year strong: After New England's week nine bye, he was rated as the top player at his position by Pro Football Focus. While the website's analytics are certainly not the be-all, end-all, they reflect how Mason has been able to improve his game from years one to two and further over the course of the 2016 season.
Mason finished the regular season as his typical solid self in the running game: He helped the Patriots gain 3.55 yards per rushing attempt behind his side; tied for second-best on the team. Furthermore, he was able to take the second-year jump as a pass protector as well. While he did surrender a team-high 10 sacks as well as seven hits and 32 hits, Mason looked more comfortable and natural against the pass rush.
Considering that he played next to both a new center in David Andrews and a new right guard in Marcus Cannon, Mason did an admirable job during his second NFL season. He improved in all facets of playing the guard position and established himself as a reliable presence on the interior offensive line.
2017 preview: Based on his 2016 season, growth as a player and modest salary cap hit of $725,881, Shaq Mason can be considered a lock to make New England's 53-man roster. Not only that, though, as he is also expected to again serve as the team's starting right guard and consequently play close to 100% of offensive snaps.
If the 2016 season is any indication, Mason should continue his ascension to the pantheon of the best right guards in the NFL. After all, he was already a very good player last year following full recovery from the hand injury he suffered during preseason; dominant in the run game and steadily improving as a pass protector. And Mason might become even better and more consistent in 2017.
There are two main reasons to believe so: First, his health. Mason was visibly hampered by his ailment and needed time to get back to full strength last year. Unless struck by injury again, he is projected to start the upcoming season at the level he ended the last one. Second, his experience. With another offseason of playing between David Andrews and Marcus Cannon, communication and chemistry on the right side of the line should continue to improve.
All in all, Mason has shown that he can be a very effective right guard in the NFL. Despite being a bit undersized and still having room to grow in the passing game, he has already been close to a level worthy of Pro Bowl recognition at times last year. And with a bit more consistency in his game, he should be able to take another step forward.