For a long time I have felt like the offensive line was the most important position group for the Patriots. I think it’s the scars of the ‘07 championship where an undefeated season was destroyed by an offensive line that could not prevent interior pressure. Nothing that has occurred since then has helped diminish the impression left by that trauma.
In the 2015 AFC Championship, one of the most talented teams in the Tom Brady era was brought low by a bumbling center and the incompetence of a presently redeemed right tackle. Just last year, the last minute weakness of Shaq Mason led to the collapse of the Patriots chances of winning Super Bowl 52.
Is there any guarantee the Patriots would have beaten Carolina? Is there any guarantee that the Patriots score the game winning touchdown against the Eagles in Super Bowl 52 if Brady isn’t strip sacked? Of course not. But it certainly seems plausible. It’s hard not to believe if the offensive line does its job, Brady will do his.
In 2018, Brady will attempt to do his job again and the offensive line will do their best to make sure their 41-year old quarterback is able to do it. The question is whether this is an offensive line that can be relied on to do its job or another impediment this long lived dynasty will have to overcome.
This column will analyze the Patriots’ current and near-term projections for talent on the offensive line.
The Left Tackle Conundrum
Any discussion about the Patriots’ offensive line has to begin with the departure of Nate Solder. Losing a franchise left tackle can be devastating to a team’s championship aspirations. Outside of the quarterback or an elite pass rusher, there probably isn’t a position in the NFL more valuable than left tackle. The argument is pretty simple: if quarterback is the most important position in football than protecting that quarterback has to be one of the most vital positions on a roster.
Bill Belichick understands this. Tom Brady had all-pro left tackle Matt Light guarding his blindside since the 2001 draft and Nate Solder seamlessly transitioned in afterwards. While Solder may not have lived up to Matt Light’s lofty legacy, he was a 17th overall pick, one of the highest drafted players in the Belichick-Brady era.
Many expected Nate Solder to re-sign with the Patriots in 2018. Unfortunately, the opportunity for a massive contract and comparable medical care in New York was able to woo Solder to the Giants. The Patriots’ decision to let him walk was understandable, though: he was an excellent run blocker who displayed painfully high variance in pass protection. In all of his years in New England he was never once elected to the Pro Bowl despite playing a premium position on one of the most prolific franchises in football. That criticism, while fair, should not undermine the fact that Nate Solder was a hell of a lot better than many tackles that sit on NFL rosters today. Letting Solder walk was a big risk.
If you want an example of what bad tackle play can do to a quarterback look no farther than the Dallas Cowboys. Tyrone Smith, one of the best tackles in football, became injured midway through last season and his replacement attempted his best rendition of 2015 AFCC Marcus Cannon. Dak Prescott, an MVP candidate the previous year, saw his performance decline precipitously. The Patriots’ own recently acquired Adrian Clayborn, a decent but not great player, took him on a spin for the tune of six sacks in a single game. In fact it was the Tyrone Smith injury, more than the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, that had the most to do with the collapse of the Cowboys’ season.
Bill Belichick knew he could not allow this to happen to the Patriots and so he orchestrated a two part plan that turned a potential disaster into an opportunity. In some of his canniest GMing to date, Bill traded for arguably the league’s best pass protecting right tackle and converted him to the blind side. For the price of a basement third round pick, Belichick found a tackle with a starter floor and a Pro Bowl ceiling.
Weeks of training camp reporting have highlighted Trent Brown not simply as a decent pass protector but as a dominant one. While it is yet to be seen if these preseason accolades will translate into the regular season, it appears probable Bill has at minimum staved off disaster. At best, he potentially upgraded on a franchise left tackle. That would have been an excellent move in and of itself but Bill did not stop there.
He capitalized on an aggressive and hungry Rams franchise and persuaded them to trade one year of a good but not great wide receiver for a top 25 draft pick. With that pick he would select the best tackle in college football: Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, who was allowed to slip due to concerns about his lack of prototypical size. The result was a guaranteed starter at left tackle and an heir apparent waiting in the wings.
I want to emphasize just how impressive this was because I don’t think Belichick has been getting the recognition he deserves for this level of voodoo. The Patriots lose a franchise left tackle who was expected to resign with the team, Bill was then able to get a starting caliber left tackle for a basement third, turn a wide receiver on his fifth-year option into a top 25 draft pick, and then grab that draft’s best tackle right from under the noses of the rest of the NFL, because they were convinced he was a guard. How impressive? Damn impressive.
Now the biggest potential hiccup to this little fairy tale is Isaiah Wynn himself. There are two problems: First, a season-ending injury that could potentially derail his entire career. Second, the question of whether Wynn can actually translate from being a superior college tackle into a superior professional left tackle. My personal belief is that Wynn’s ceiling will always be higher as a guard due to his fundamental physical limitations. But a good tackle is always going to be better than a great guard.
Excellent tackles lacking the prototypical size is not unheard of. Matt Light lacked the prototypical size, though he was more typical than Wynn. Perhaps the best example for an undersized tackle is Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari who is an All Pro caliber tackle taken in the fourth round due to concerns about his physical limitations. But even if Bill fails in his gambit for a seamless tackle transition at minimum he has found a replacement for this year and potentially a franchise caliber guard.
It’s primarily as a result of this offseason wizardry that I am optimistic for this year’s offensive line.
The 5 Best Men for the Job?
The dream of Brown, Wynn, Andrews, Mason and Cannon would appear to be the best offensive line on paper but it sets up an extremely dangerous situation for 2019, where the team would once again be without a left tackle. The calculus here is very simple: there is a very high probability than Brown will only play a single season in New England. Therefore it is essential to coach Wynn as a tackle.
Why am I so convinced Brown will leave after this season? The first reason is the league-wide demand for even competent tackle play. Nate Solder is a solid left tackle but he is being paid like a great one. You can chalk that up to overaggressive and foolish GMing if you want, and that does play a part. But the truth is that those sort of contracts are the natural result of demand exceeding supply.
College is not reliably producing quality tackles and it hasn’t for years. Even “elite” prospects like Laremy Tunsil, who scouts confidently projected as a lockdown franchise tackle, have struggled mightily in the pros. Simply put, franchises are not confident in their ability to draft rookie tackles and are overcompensating proven veterans as a result. It’s a market distortion that favors the Patriots for the most part.
New England will not field a single offensive lineman drafted above the third round in 2018. The fact that this is a cause for celebration, and not concern, is a testament to Dante Scarnecchia’s greatness as a coach and scout. The fact that the Patriots have been able to field a competitive offensive line while other teams have struggled or resorted to giving massive contracts to players who do not deserve them is part of their success. But in this case the market will work against them by making it very difficult to keep Trent Brown.
The second reason is that just about every single team projected to have significant cap space next year should also be in the market for a tackle and there will be few viable tackles in free agency just like there were in 2018. Not only will there be a demand, but there should be plenty of wealthy bidders to drive the price up.
Finally, even in a worst-case scenario where Brown only lives up to his floor as an above average pass protector and below average run blocker, he will likely still command a hefty contract. It’s possible his past reputation could weigh him down but a good season in New England would still only be one of three years of good production on two different teams. When you add in his versatility to play on the left and the right, it is hard to believe he won’t command top dollar. Look at teams like the Bills and Texans. Even a worst case scenario Brown would be a vast improvement over whatever tackles they field next year.
But maybe Brown will just love being a Patriot? And if Bill is willing to invest heavily in the left tackle position in the past is there not a good possibility he will do so again? It’s possible, but I doubt it. Brown was a seventh round draft pick. He has probably never had close to a million dollars in a bank account. Solder was a 17th overall pick, had already been given a hefty extension and he still left the Patriots for the siren call of cash. As for Belichick’s willingness to invest in the position I would argue he already has: a top 25 pick is a legitimate investment.
There are only two possible scenarios where Bill keeps Brown on this team. The first scenario is that Wynn flames out as a tackle. At that point, the Patriots might be willing to pony up the cash and stick Wynn at guard. The second scenario is that they trade Marcus Cannon for draft capital. On that contract, Cannon would be easily worth a 2nd round pick. But I find either of those situations unlikely. It’s far more likely they let Brown walk for the compensatory pick and Bill is content with having two quality tackles and relatively inexpensive contracts. It would be a situation that, as far as I can tell, would not exist on any other franchise in the NFL.
Not bad, Bill.
The Right Tackles
The Patriots will be fielding two high-floor tackles next year. At worst, they should have two very decent tackles. But it is the ceilings of Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon that make the Patriots offensive line one of the few “sexy” position groups on the roster. Cannon has already demonstrated himself as an All Pro caliber tackle. Trent Brown has never reached that level but has received glowing commendations from two of the league’s biggest stars in Kyle Shanahan and Von Miller. Brown will be in a contract year and will be working with the best offensive line coach in the league. If there was ever going to be a time where he tapped his ceiling as a prospect it should be this one. Good tackles are better than great guards and great tackles can propel a team to a championship.
Another element of this is that the Patriots are not only top heavy but also have depth. Isaiah Wynn should be as quality a depth player as can be hoped for. Or at least he should have been before suffering a season ending injury. LaAdrian Waddle, while not good, has a decent floor. The Patriots should have been as set at one of the most important position in the NFL as any team in the league. The loss of Wynn places them in the same boat of most franchises: if their starting tackle goes down they are in trouble.
3 In The Middle
Rounding out the Patriots’ offensive line are guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and center Andrews. None of these players are stars but the weakest among them, Thuney at left guard, is still an average player. Offensive lines tend to be undone by their worst player and the fact that the worst player on the line is entering his third year after two years of solid play bodes well.
While no one on the offensive may claim to stardom such as Andrew Norwell or David DeCastro, Shaq Mason is probably the closest thing to it that exist on the team. While his pass protection is suspect, he has flashed elite run blocking capabilities and been ranked as one of the best guards in the NFL over various stretches of his three year career. While Shaq was never able to put together as dominate a stretch as he did at the end of his sophomore year, he is set to be a valuable piece along the Patriots offensive line in 2018. Entering a contract year should only help to spur Mason to greater heights.
David Andrews represents one of the best values on the team. Andrews was signed to a backup contract and has played as a solid starter for two years. Andrews is the opposite of Mason. While Mason struggles in pass protection, Andrews struggles in run blocking. Normally you would happily trade a player who is a better pass protector than run blocker when you have TB12 at quarterback but it’s a little different for centers who rarely face off against pass rushers one on one. Throughout a season you would always prefer to have an average pass protector but elite run blocking center like Jason Kelce. But in pivotal moments where Tom has to throw the ball it’s nice to know the team can count on Andrews to help get the job done.
The final member of the starting interior is Joe Thuney. Thuney is the worst of the lot but there is not as large a gap as some people seem to suggest. Thuney is a perfectly acceptable guard. He certainly doesn’t lack for toughness. According to Jesse Reed at YardBarker he threw up three times at practice earlier this offseason and did not miss a single practice snap. His big weakness is his lack of strength. He is consistently defeated by strong bull rushing pass rushers. I quiver to think what would have happened if James Harrison had been on the Eagles and lined up against Thuney all day. The score might not have been as close. For what it is worth, Mike Giardi recognized Thuney by name at camp as players who had stood out, claiming he “looked stronger”. I would caution against reading too much into that, but a stronger Thuney would do a lot more to cement this interior as one of the better in the NFL.
In terms of depth, Ted Karras is a serviceable fill in, though I would hope we don’t have to put him at center again. Outside of Karras there are no notable depth pieces. We can probably handle one injury on the interior but more than than would cause problems.
Projections for 2018
Last year I projected the Patriots to be a top 10 unit who could maybe place on the fringe of the top 5 provided there was development from Thuney or Mason showed he could remain as dominate as he was during the homestretch of his sophomore year. Unfortunately things didn’t work out that way. Nate Solder was simply bad the first quarter of the season, Thuney plateaued, Mason cooled off, and the team lost Marcus Cannon for the season. Still by year’s end you saw a flash of the potential you would have hoped the offensive line could have displayed all season.
In 2018, I will recommit to my prediction that the Patriots will be firmly cemented as a top 10 offensive line with potential for fringe top 5 status. This projection assumes a few things so let’s review what that is. Let’s assume Mason does not give New England anything extra in his contract year, that Thuney has truly plateaued as a player, and that Andrews can continue to give us the same solid performance he has for two years. Let’s also assume Cannon regresses some from 2016. However, let’s also assume he remains healthy most of the season. Let’s also assume Trent Brown is better than Nate Solder. Yes, that’s a big projection for a guy switching from the right to the left side but it’s a projection I am going to make nonetheless.
At this point you have the same solid interior offensive line that benefits from markedly improved tackle play. That’s easily a top 10 offensive line. At worst, Cannon being consistently healthy will dramatically improve the right tackle position so that even if Brown is only as good as Nate Solder the line will be a lot better. The potential to be a top 5 offensive lines really comes down to whether or not we see any improvement from our guard play and whether Trent Brown can live up to his ceiling as a top 10 tackle.
What excites me most about the Patriots offensive line is the combination of a good floor and a high ceiling. Unless Cannon dramatically regresses or remains out most of the season, the Patriots should benefit from better than average tackle play and average at worst interior protection. At best they could dominate with two top ten tackles and consistently above average interior play. And that’s pretty great news for a 41-year old Tom Brady and the fans that want to see him keep playing.