For the last few years, the New England Patriots consistently had one of the better offensive tackle groups in the NFL. Whether it was Nate Solder or Trent Brown manning the left-side starting position, they were both serviceable options in a group that also consisted of right-side starter Marcus Cannon and veteran swing backup LaAdrian Waddle. Heading into the 2019 season, however, the situation at offensive tackle is looking quite different.
While Cannon, who recently re-worked his contract, is still around to hold down the right end of the line the rest is more of a question mark. Yes, second-year man Isaiah Wynn is penciled in as the starting left tackle despite not yet participating in full-team drills during training camp. He is still coming off a season lost to a torn Achilles tendon, though, and needs to prove that he can be a consistent left tackle in the mold of Solder and Brown.
Nevertheless, Wynn’s progress — the team is taking it slow; anything but him starting in week one would be a major surprise — is comparatively low on the list of problems the Patriots have at offensive tackle at the moment. Enter Joe Thuney and the quest to find a suitable replacement for Waddle. New England’s starting left guard has been the best left tackle in training camp so far, after all, ahead of the ‘true’ depth tackles.
Having Thuney serve as Wynn’s backup is not exactly the best-case scenario; having someone like Waddle who is capable of coming off the bench to fill both the left and the right tackle spot if need be is. So far along in the process, however, no true swing tackle has emerged which is why the Patriots opted to go with their left guard as the stand-in until Wynn is ready to participate fully in practice again.
The original top candidate to earn the spot after the retirement of veteran free agency signing Jared Veldheer, third-round rookie Yodny Cajuste, remains on the non-football injury list and might be headed towards a redshirt campaign. The next candidate down the line, third-year man Cole Croston, was just let go by the team yesterday and will revert to season-ending injured reserve in case he clears the waiver wire.
Due to all the recent turnover at the position, the Patriots currently have a lot of unproven talent to serve as the backups at left tackle: Dan Skipper and Cedrick Lang have recently seen a spike in starter-level practice reps, but both have had his fair share of problems. Tyree St. Louis and recently signed Martez Ivey, meanwhile, are developmental options at best and should probably not yet be trusted to serve as the number three tackle.
So what is the Patriots’ plan at the position? The way the offseason has developed, they appear to be taking the throwing-players-on-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks approach. So far, Skipper has come the closest to sticking but he still has a considerable way to go. Until a clear winner emerges, the team will therefore likely try to keep rotating its players and adding more how it sees fit. Don’t be surprised if New England’s number three offensive tackle is not yet on the roster.
What about Thuney, though, you may ask? The way the offensive line is constructed at the moment, the 26-year-old would probably still be the number one option to fill in for Wynn should something happen to the starter. Ted Karras would then fill the left guard spot, but it is not hard to see why the Patriots may prefer another constellation — i.e. one in which an actual tackle fills Wynn’s spot: moving Thuney from guard to tackle and replacing him with a backup would weaken two spots along the line.
Having an offensive tackle being able to fill in for both Wynn or Cannon — something Thuney would not be able to do (Wynn would probably move over if Cannon got injured, with Thuney replacing him again) — would limit the damage an injury would do to the overall composition of the offensive line. Hence the Patriots’ continued attempts at finding the swing tackle they lost with Waddle’s departure.
For the time being, those attempts will continue.