The New England Patriots’ interior offensive line was a model of stability between 2016 and 2018, but uncertainty is the name of the game heading into the 2020 offseason. Starting center David Andrews missed all of 2019 after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs. Starting left guard Joe Thuney and Andrews’ replacement, Ted Karras, are both unrestricted free agents. 2019 fourth-round draft pick Hjalte Froholdt is a virtual unknown.
Add the retirement of coach Dante Scarencchia, and you get an interior offensive line in flux. The Patriots will have to play with the hand they have been dealt, however, and will need to ensure to form the best possible lineup heading into the new season. One way to do so is to bring additional talent on board, either through free agency or the draft. And if the team opts to go the latter route, one player should catch its eye.
Lloyd Cushenberry III served as LSU’s starting center for the past two seasons, but might be able to play all three interior spot if need be. As such, he would give the team considerable flexibility when it comes to answering all the question marks it currently has up front. And with that being said, let’s take a closer look at him:
Name: Lloyd Cushenberry III
2019 stats: 15 games, 1,039 offensive snaps; 4 sacks, 5 hits, 25 hurries surrendered
Size: 6033, 312 lbs, 34 5/8 arm length, 10 1/2 hand size, 83 1/8 wing span
Opening day age: 22
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Strengths: Cushenberry has played a lot of football at LSU, and his experience certainly shows: he diagnoses pass-rushes well and has a natural feel for his depth, and is a good communicator given his time as the Tigers’ center. He also brings a strong athletic profile to the table in terms of his overall mobility and short-area quickness — something that should help him on pull blocks in the running game, or when it comes to getting to the second level on screen passes. Cushenberry also has a good size to play not just the center position but the other interior offensive line spots as well.
That being said, despite his 6-foot-3, 312-pound frame, he has shown some strong balance when being attacked by power rushers. In general, he is capable of reacting quickly to keep up with speed rushers but also has the low anchor to withstand the blow when being bull-rushed. He certainly knows how to use his size and plays with a strong pad level. His shotgun-snaps and under-center handoffs are good as well.
Weaknesses: Cushenberry’s technical tools are strong, but he needs to get more consistent in applying them. His footwork can be a bit spotty at times and his base is not always as strong as you would want it to be, resulting in him bending his waist a bit too much. At times, he can be too overeager at the point of attack and needs to re-set in order not to lose his balance off his natural quickness.
He also has some technical breakdowns at times when it comes to his hand placement, although the latter might improve in case he gets moved to the guard position and does not have to get his arms up after snapping a football on every play.
What would be his role? Given the uncertainty up front for the Patriots, Cushenberry could fill numerous spots: he has the experience and football IQ to be a day one starter at center or possibly guard if need be, or simply serve as a versatile backup with starter upside in the mold of the aforementioned Ted Karras. Either way, he would be right in the mix for the left guard position in case Joe Thuney left New England via free agency.
How many downs can he play? Depending on his role, one to four. As a starter, he is capable of playing all three offensive downs and also see time as a blocker on field goal and extra point attempts — the latter role he should also be able to fill if staring his career as a backup.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Cushenberry should be able to see regular time in the kicking game from day one as an interior blocker on field goal and extra point attempts — lining up in either guard spot on the shoulders of long snapper Joe Cardona. He brings plenty of special teams experience to the table from his time with the Tigers.
Does he have positional versatility? Cushenberry spent most of his last two seasons at the center position, but he also has experience playing other spots along the line: he was a tackle in high school before moving to the interior upon joining LSU. In 2017, after redshirting as a freshman, he saw action at both guard and center — showing that he might be able to make a positional switch at the next level or serve as a jack-of-all-trades backup.
Will his role change from year one to year two? In case the Patriots need a long-term replacement option for either Joe Thuney or David Andrews — even though there is optimism surrounding the latter’s medical status — Cushenberry could be their man, especially if no other options pan out. And even if he spends 2020 as a backup, there might be a realistic chance to see him get elevated to starter in 2021 (think: Ted Karras gets re-signed to possibly fill Thuney’s old spot for one year, with the intention to groom Cushenberry behind him).
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If the Patriots draft Cushenberry in the third or fourth round, he should be considered a lock to make the roster. His role, however, would depend on his performance over the summer and against fellow interior offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt as well as the possibly re-signed Jermaine Eluemunor (restricted free agent) and Ted Karras.
Why the Patriots? With Froholdt being an uncertainty after an inconsistent pre-season and year-long stint on injured reserve, and with both Thuney and Karras headed for free agency, New England might have to insert young and cheap talent into its offensive line — something Cushenberry would offer as one of the better prospects at his position. He also does have the potential to become a day-one starter if need be, and the versatility to do it at the potentially vacant left guard position. Add this to his already sound foundational skills and you get an intriguing option.
Why not the Patriots? While Cushenberry has some experience playing at guard and his skill set projects well for a position change at the next level, there is a chance that the Patriots view him exclusively as a center after all. If so and unless David Andrews is unable to return to the field in 2020, spending a low day two/high day three selection at the position would probably be an unwise investment. Furthermore, the Patriots might prefer more experienced options at the NFL level to insert into the starting line in case Thuney and Karras leave via free agency.
Verdict: At the moment, plenty of factors impact whether or not Cushenberry makes sense for the Patriots in one of the draft’s middle rounds: David Andrews’ medical situation, the free agency statuses of Joe Thuney and Ted Karras, and Hjalte Froholdt’s long-term outlook. There is a chance that most of them do not develop in Cushenberry’s favor over the next few weeks, which would eliminate the need for another interior line option.
Of course, if projections turn out to be accurate and Thuney indeed leaves as a free agent, New England might want to spend on the position ini the draft. If the club wants to do that and views him as a potential three-position player along the interior offensive line, capable of making the move to left guard, Cushenberry would make sense as a draft day investment.