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Offseason preview: Patriots’ interior offensive line could look drastically different in 2020

Related: Offseason preview: Patriots’ top offensive tackles all under contract for 2020, but questions remain

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with four teams left standing, the New England Patriots will have to set their sights on the season to come: after being eliminated from the postseason on wild card weekend, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the AFC East champions have a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins on March 18.

With that being said, let’s break down where the team stands at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue with the interior offensive line positions where the Patriots have eight players currently (still) under contract.

David Andrews

Position: Center

Age: 27

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Andrews has a salary cap hit of $3.8 million in 2020.

2019 review: Despite entering 2019 as the Patriots’ undisputed starting center, Andrews did not appear in a single game after being hospitalized in August due to blood clots in his lungs. The team captain was placed on injured reserve on roster cutdown day and forced to spend the entire season on the sidelines, where he served as a de facto assistant coach throughout the year.

2020 preview: Andrews’ medical status for the upcoming season remains uncertain at this point as the 27-year-old will still undergo further testing over the next few weeks. However, he did recently express optimism about a potential return to the field in 2020. If cleared, Andrews is expected to again fill the starting center position.

Jermaine Eluemunor

Position: Guard

Age: 25

Contract status: Set to enter restricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: In late August, the Patriots sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Baltimore Ravens to bring Eluemunor and a sixth-round selection on board. Despite the investment, he did see only limited playing time in 2019 and was on the field for more snaps on special teams (38) than on offense (29) while serving primarily as an emergency depth option.

2020 preview: As a restricted free agent, Eluemunor can be tendered at one of three levels by the Patriots: the first-round tender worth an estimated $4.7 million, the $3.3 million second-round tender or the $2.1 million original round tender. In case another team then signs the 25-year-old to an offer sheet, New England would have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation.

Given his status as a depth player in 2019 and the details of the trade that brought him on board in the first place, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots opted to go with the original round tender — Eluemunor was a fifth-round draft pick — or maybe not even tender him at all. A lot, of course, might depend on how other pieces will fall into place during the NFL’s legal tampering period ahead of the start of free agency.

James Ferentz

Position: Center/Guard

Age: 30

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: Ferentz was unable to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster out of training camp but was eventually re-signed a week after cutdown day to offer depth along the interior line. Capable of playing all three of its positions, he then went on to make the first two starts of his career: at right guard in Week 8 and at center in Week 14. All in all, Ferentz was on the field for 203 of New England’s 1,210 offensive snaps (16.8%) in 2019.

2020 preview: While Ferentz is scheduled to enter the open market in mid-March, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots bring him back on a comparatively cheap contract. After all, he would provide experienced depth at three spots — something the team certainly needed in 2019. His long-term outlook, however, is likely tied to that of other players.

Hjalte Froholdt

Position: Guard

Age: 23

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Froholdt has a salary cap hit of $690,841 in 2020.

2019 review: The Patriots invested the 118th overall selection of the 2019 draft to get Froholdt on board, but the Arkansas product did not do a lot during his first year as a pro. He had his moments in training camp but did also look like a raw developmental project throughout the summer before a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason finale forced the team to place him on season-ending injured reserve.

2020 preview: With starting left guard Joe Thuney set to hit the open market in March, Froholdt was seen as a potential replacement option. However, those plans might be on hold for now given the injury that knocked him out last year in combination with his performance in preseason. While there is an obvious chance that the Danish-born lineman develops into a starter after all, New England might be wise not to rely solely on him to fill a potential void at left guard based on how his 2019 season went.

Ted Karras

Position: Center/Guard

Age: 26

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: When David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs, the Patriots had to turn to Ted Karras to take over as their new starter. Luckily for the team, he brought considerable experience to the table after having seen somewhat regular playing time — albeit as a package-specific backup — through his first three years in the league and having started five games. Karras added 16 more to his résumé in 2019, missing one game because of a sprained MCL.

All in all, the 26-year-old filled in admirably for Andrews. While a downgrade especially as a run blocker, he competed well and also held his own in the passing game: playing a combined 1,101 of a possible 1,210 offensive snaps (91.0%), Karras surrendered just one sack and 12 total quarterback pressures.

2020 preview: As is the case with other men on this list, the fate of Joe Thuney will also have an impact on Karras. While there is a chance he receives a starting contract from another team and leaves, the Patriots could also opt to bring him back as the heir to Thuney’s position. If the starting left guard is re-signed to a hefty contract, however, it seems unrealistic to expect New England to be competitive for Karras’ services. That being said, David Andrews’ medical status could also have an impact on how the team approaches the free agent.

Shaq Mason

Position: Guard

Age: 26

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Mason has a salary cap hit of $8.78 million in 2020.

2019 review: Coming off the best season of his career, Mason did not continue his development in 2019 and had some issues as both a pass protector and run blocker. Part of the problem might have been his position between a new starting center in Ted Karras and an up-and-down right tackle in Marcus Cannon, and an ankle injury that forced him to miss Week 8, but the 26-year-old did simply also not show the same consistency that made him one of the best guards in football and a man who received a five-year contract extension in 2018.

2020 preview: Mason is guaranteed to remain with the Patriots in 2020 not just due to his contract but also his upside in the team’s system: while he did not play his best at times in 2019, he did get better as the year went along. Don’t be surprised if he therefore bounced back next season, especially in case David Andrews does return to the lineup as New England’s starting center.

Joe Thuney

Position: Guard

Age: 27

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 18.

2019 review: Thuney improved every year since he joined the Patriots as a third-round draft pick in 2016, and 2019 was no exception: the 27-year-old was the team’s most consistent blocker up front and looked good both in pass protection and as a road-grader in the running game. On top of it, he also again showed tremendous durability: Thuney started all 17 of the team’s games at left guard and was on the field for a team-high 1,200 offensive snaps (of 1,210; 99.2%).

2020 preview: In two months, Thuney will be a very wealthy man — and arguably the highest paid guard in all of football. The question is whether or not the money will come from the Patriots or another team. That being said, New England investing considerable resources in the four-year starter would be somewhat surprising considering that a) quarterback Tom Brady is one of the other 18 players headed for unrestricted free agency, and b) the team already has Shaq Mason on its 2020 cap with $8.8 million.

Furthermore, the development and potential of Hjalte Froholdt and/or Jermaine Eluemunor might also have an impact on how the team approaches Thuney’s free agency. Add all this up, and him wearing another uniform in 2020 would not be that big of a shocker.

Najee Toran

Position: Guard

Age: 24

Contract status: Under contract through the 2020 season. Toran has a salary cap hit of $585,000 in 2020.

2019 review: After getting released from the San Francisco 49ers on roster cutdown day, the Patriots signed Toran to their practice squad in early September. The second-year man went on to spend the entire season on New England’s developmental roster.

2020 preview: Toran signed a reserve/futures deal with the Patriots after their 2019 season came to an end on wild card weekend. The 24-year-old is therefore in a position to compete for a roster or practice squad spot in 2020, even though neither is guaranteed.