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To ‘back up five spots’ on offensive line, Patriots have to keep options open

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Eight offensive linemen logged snaps for New England in 2016, and all eight remain entering 2017.

NFL: New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive linemen make up 17 percent of the New England Patriots’ 90-man roster.

By 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 3, however, there won’t be 16 left standing. There may not even be eight.

That cutdown reality was reinforced on Tuesday morning, as head coach Bill Belichick fielded a question from ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss regarding offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle, and whether the third-year Patriot is viewed as more of a swing tackle or a bookend who’s managed to settle in on the left side.

Belichick’s reponse highlighted a broader picture. It wasn’t just about Waddle. It was about playing weak, strong, inside and out. It was about playing for the 53-man roster.

“Well, when we get to the regular season, as you know, Mike, if we only take seven linemen, then somebody has got to swing,” Belichick told reporters at The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W. Va., via Patriots.com. “We can’t have a backup for everybody.”

There’s a lot of position-less parts between the C-, B- and A-gaps. And soon there won’t simply be bookends, guards and centers; there’ll be a starting five and, at most, a few reserves who’ll be expected to step into the rest.

That comes with the territory on a team that saw its starting nucleus play 1,000-plus snaps apiece last regular season under 69-year-old O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia, while three reserve blockers combined for 393 offensive snaps in relief.

“Either your third tackle is the swing tackle, or your third tackle plays one spot and one of your other starters swings, or a guard swings or does something,” added Belichick. “Similar to the interior – if you carry seven linemen, then you have two guys to back up five spots, so it’s just simple math. You’ve got to just figure it out.”

Addition, subtraction or long division – the Patriots are continuing to figure out the math. But two or three guys are going to have to take on the equations in less than three weeks.

In last Thursday’s preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, nine offensive linemen saw the field for the Patriots. That list did not include returning first-teamers in left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason, or right tackle Marcus Cannon. It also didn’t include Troy product and third-round tackle Tony Garcia – who’s missed the last week of practices – or undrafted Vanderbilt rookie Andrew Jelks – currently on the non-football injury list.

Instead it featured a trio of rookie free agents, a veteran offseason addition, three returning members from the 2016 active roster, and one practice-squadder back as a futures signing.

When some subbed in, some subbed out. Others moved over.

O-LINE SNAPS AGAINST JAGUARS

Tackle Cole Croston: 65 on offense

Center James Ferentz: 52 on offense

Tackle LaAdrian Waddle: 47 on offense, five on special teams

Guard-Center Ted Karras: 45 on offense, 11 on special teams

Guard Jamil Douglas: 45 on offense, five on special teams

Tackle Conor McDermott: 42 on offense, five on special teams

Tackle Cameron Fleming: 40 on offense, five on special teams

Guard Jason King: 21 on offense

Tackle Max Rich: 21 on offense

The more you can do is cliché but key when it comes to the most selfless position group in football. Belichick suggested as much during the first leg of joint practices with the Houston Texans. Just how valuable can tackle-guard or guard-center flexibility make an offensive lineman? Does that outweigh the value of a more talented backup that, say, can only play right tackle?

Time will tell.

With the starters from 2016 remaining unchanged, and Garcia virtually assured a 53-man roster spot after being nabbed No. 85 overall in April, there may be a couple spots left unclaimed as New England mulls its answers. One may be McDermott. One may be a more experienced name.

Fleming has been there as a tackle, a kicked-in guard and a jumbo tight end since landing as a fourth-round pick in 2014. Waddle has been there – albeit sparingly – as a tackle for three games since being claimed off waivers from a Detroit Lions team he used to start for in the tail end of 2015. Karras, a sixth-rounder last spring, has been there as a special-teamer with growing flexibility at all three interior positions. And for almost a year, Douglas has been there as a guard on the 10-man scout team after arriving in the league as a Miami Dolphins fourth-round choice in 2015.

But whomever stays won’t be exclusive.

Like Belichick said, it could be two playing five spots.