The New England Patriots’ offensive tackle position underwent some major changes over the course of the offseason, with two of the top three options from 2018 leaving via free agency: Trent Brown joined the Oakland Raiders on a record-breaking deal; LaAdrian Waddle moved to the Buffalo Bills. And while Brown’s role will be filled by former first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn, the one previously held by Waddle is up for grabs.
As things stand right now, the Patriots have five players on their roster competing for that backup/swing tackle spot. Let’s meet them:
OT Yodny Cajuste, OT Cole Croston, OT Dan Skipper, OT Cedrick Lang, OT Tyree St. Louis
On paper, Yodny Cajuste would be the clear favorite to win the competition. However, the third-round rookie will open training camp on the non-football injury list after undergoing quad surgery in March. While he is eligible to return at any time, his absence and what it entails will open the door for the other depth offensive tackles to earn practice reps and preseason playing time as the first man to come off the bench.
One player does have a similar road as Cajuste ahead of him, though. Third-year man Cole Croston was placed on the physically unable to perform list on Sunday, and will need to be activated first before being able to hit the practice fields. This, in turn, leaves just three offensive tackles that can be classified as ‘healthy’ at the present moment: veteran offseason addition Cedrick Lang, former practice squad player Dan Skipper, and undrafted rookie Tyree St. Louis.
The deciding factors
Technique: From footwork to hand usage to leverage — offensive tackle is a technical position, and few coaches are as demanding in this regard as the Patriots’ Dante Scarnecchia. The veteran coach, who is widely regarded as the best in the league at this job, puts a premium in players having sound fundamentals and using them consistently. Whoever fails to do this or does not show proper progress will not have much of a future in New England.
Athleticism and playing strength: You can have a spotless technique, but if you lack an adequate athletic skillset — quickness, coordination, strength (and how to use it) — as an offensive tackle in today’s NFL you will have a hard time. Not all depth tackles on New England’s current team are as impressive as Yodny Cajuste in this area, but they need to show enough upside to warrant keeping around as developmental swing or emergency options.
Awareness: Defenders do not just use brute strength to win their matchups, teams oftentimes rely on scheme to get them free. Offensive tackles, therefore, need to be able to read what is happening in front of them and react accordingly no matter if they are run blocking or pass protecting. On top of it all, they also need to be aware of their own positioning on the field and how deep they move back or forward in their sets.
Communication: The offensive line needs to operate as a unit which means that the five (or sometimes more) players on the field need to have a common understanding of concepts and defensive looks. For the offensive tackles this means being able to get on the same page as the guards — even more so for a swing option that has to perform on both the left and the right side when called upon.
Versatility: The Patriots usually keep only eight offensive linemen on their roster, so versatility may be a trump card for those competing in camp. Cole Croston, Dan Skipper and Cedrick Lang all have experience playing tackle and guard; Tyree St. Louis is capable of lining up on the left and the right side of the formation. The highest-upside option — Yodny Cajuste — might be the least versatile of the five men coming off last season, but he has the skillset to learn how to move between his normal left-side spot and the right side on a regular basis.
If Yodny Cajuste is healthy, he will be on the Patriots’ 53-man roster. The questions are whether or not the team will a) keep another option around in case of emergency, or b) even activate the 23-year-old in the first place. If New England wants or needs to go with another backup swing tackle to start the season, Cole Croston would be the logical next choice given his experience in the Patriots’ system and versatility to play on the outside and the interior of the offensive line.
As noted above, however, Croston also is currently out with an undisclosed ailment, so the Patriots might have to look elsewhere for reinforcements at offensive tackle. Dan Skipper and Cedrick Lang are the favorites among the players on the roster as things stand right now, but one has to wonder if the club would prefer bringing in a higher-upside player from the outside — either via trade, free agency, or the cutdown day waiver wire.
Of course, there is one other factor to consider: Joe Thuney. The Patriots’ starting left guard lined up as the top left-side tackle during mandatory minicamp and with Isaiah Wynn out. New England could very well go with the veteran as the number two option, at least on the left side, and as a result focus more on interior depth than an additional swing tackle.