The New England Patriots' biggest free agency loss this year – both figuratively and in terms of his size – is Nate Solder. The team's starting left offensive tackle signed a record-breaking deal with the New York Giants and leaves a hole on the blindside of quarterback Tom Brady. And even though the team has some options on its roster to fill the vacancy, the long-term outlook is unclear considering the health issues 2017 third-rounder Antonio Garcia is trying to come back from.
New England, therefore, appears to be in the market for an offensive tackle and Brian O'Neill might be on the teams radar even though there has been no reported contact between the Patriots and the Pitt product. Let's take a closer look at him:
Name: Brian O’Neill
Position: Offensive tackle
2017 stats: 12 games (12 starts), 1 carry, 10 yards
Size: 6067, 297 lbs, 34 inch arms
Combine numbers: 4.82 40-yard dash, 29.5” vertical, 8’11” broad jump, 7.14 3-cone
Expected Round: 2nd/3rd
Strengths: O'Neill is one of the best athletes this year's offensive tackle class has to offer. Despite his size, he displayed some elite moving skills beyond his combine-leading 40-yard time: The Pitt product plays with light feet and is able to quickly reverse direction if need be – all features that help him tremendously when it comes to moving to the second level on runs or screen plays.
Due to his natural moving abilities both laterally and up the field, which stem from the time when he still played tight end (prior to 2015), O'Neill also is an effective blocker on pull-blocks or in zone-based schemes. He brings good vision to identify his targets in open space and finishes blocks on the move. Furthermore, his impressive quickness allows him to recover in case he gets beaten around the age.
Besides coming with ideal height and arm length, O'Neill also offers plenty of versatility: Not only did he commit to Pittsburgh as a tight end, he also has experience lining up on both the right (26 games) and left (12 games) side of the offensive line. In short, his path to the NFL looks a lot like Nate Solder's did before he was picked in the first round in 2011.
Weaknesses: As athletic as O'Neill is, he is a raw prospect that needs some serious work on his still inconsistent technique at the next level – especially when it comes to pass protection: His hand placement and pad level are off at times as he tries to drive defenders away, while his footwork gets sloppy when going against speedy attackers. He also has a tendency to open up too much and give defenders a chance to drive him back.
At times, O'Neill also is too aggressive in attacking up the field, which in turn allows defenders to counterattack and get past him. His awareness on combination or peel off blocks also needs improve, as does his upper body strength. In general, adding some extra pounds to his rather lean frame needs to be imperative over the next few months.
A lot of O'Neill's technique issues are to be expected considering that he has only played the position for the last three years. And while his experience is not that big of an issue, he might still need some more time to learn the intricacies of the position at the next level and should therefore not be counted on to start on day one.
What would be his role? Considering that O'Neill is a work in progress, he will likely start his NFL career as a backup swing tackle and occasional extra tight. And while he could be a serviceable part-time starter in year one, the best course of action for him is likely to sit behind the curtains and learn to eventually enter the starting lineup further down the line.
How many downs can he play? Four, in theory. Until he becomes a starter, however, O'Neill will likely only see spot duty on offensive downs and a considerable percentage of his snaps in year one will come in the kicking game.
What is his special teams value? O'Neill is able to serve as a protector on field goal and extra point attempts from day one.
Does he have positional versatility? While he might see the occasional snap as an eligible third tackle, he should not be counted on to catch passes on a regular basis at the next level. Despite that, O'Neill still brings versatility to the table and can play as both a left and a right tackle.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? Ideally, O'Neill serves as a backup in year one and is trusted to take over a starting position in year two. He certainly has the talent to do just that.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Only Marcus Cannon and Antonio Garcia can be considered safe to make the team, at this point. LaAdrian Waddle has very good odds to join them so Matt Tobin, Andrew Jelks and Cole Croston are the main competition for practice time. If the Patriots pick O'Neill where he is projected to go, he is a lock to make the team by default.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots need someone to replace Nate Solder. O'Neill, who has plenty of the athletic traits that turned Solder into a first-round pick and quality left tackle in the NFL, could be just that: a player that needs some work with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia but one that possesses the tools to turn into the next Solder – and a long-term starter at the position.
New England also would be a good landing spot considering the personnel the team currently has under contract: With LaAdrian Waddle re-signed during free agency, the Patriots could afford to let O'Neill sit and learn for a year before handing him over the keys to Tom Brady's blindside next season.
Why not the Patriots? Two major factors stand in the way of O'Neill joining the Patriots: The first is the other offensive tackles entering the draft. Players like Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey, Texas' Connor Williams or UCLA's Kolton Miller all come with a more pro-ready technique and could potentially start on opening day. New England could therefore opt to take one of them if the chance presents itself.
Furthermore, there is no knowing just yet how the team sees the offensive tackles it has already signed: LaAdrian Waddle has looked solid in limited action last year, while Antonio Garcia was drafted in the third round in 2017 for a reason. Add dark-horse players like Andrew Jelks and Cole Croston and there could simply be too much quality already on the roster for New England to invest an early-round selection in a tackle.
Verdict: Brian O'Neill is an intriguing prospect at the offensive tackle position that has foundation to turn into a quality player at the next level. If the Patriots are willing to give him time to develop and other circumstances also work in his favor, he could very well find himself taken by New England on day two of the draft.