The New England Patriots’ offensive tackle position appears well set heading towards the 2020 season, but the team still faces some questions both in the short and the long term: starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn appeared in only nine of a possible 36 games over his first two seasons in the NFL; starting right tackle Marcus Cannon will already turn 32 in May and has a lengthy injury history himself; projected third option Yodny Cajuste missed his entire 2019 rookie campaign after offseason quad surgery.
While there is a chance the team feels good about the state of the position both in 2020 and beyond, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots invest in an offensive tackle in this year’s draft. If they choose to do so, Boise State’s Ezra Cleveland might be an intriguing mid-round player to keep an eye on as a potential fourth option this year with considerable developmental upside.
Name: Ezra Cleveland
Position: Offensive tackle
School: Boise State (redshirt junior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 13 games; 916 snaps; 12 quarterback pressures surrendered (3.0 sacks, 2 hits, 7 hurries)
Size: 6060, 311 lbs, 9.0 hand size, 33.38 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.93 40-yard dash, 7.26 three-cone drill, 4.46 short shuttle, 903 broad jump, 30.0 vertical jump, 30 bench press
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Video conference call
Strengths: Cleveland’s athleticism and movement skills are his most impressive trait and the reason why he can be seen as a high-ceiling prospect. Measured at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, the Boise State product ran the fastest three-cone drill (7.26 seconds) and short shuttle (4.46 seconds) among all offensive linemen participating at the scouting combine. Furthermore, he was one of only three linemen to finish the 40-yard dash in under five seconds.
His athletic profile can also be found on tape: Cleveland is a light-footed player, whose movement in space and flexibility are superb. He is therefore projected to function well in a zone-blocking scheme, while also offering the necessary agility to engage defenders in man-blocking concepts. Cleveland has also shown that he is capable of holding his blocks in both running and passing situations, and when asked to mirror pass-rushers, and that he has little problem identifying his assignments when moving to the second level.
Weaknesses: While Cleveland’s athletic foundation is impressive, he very much enters the draft as a work in progress in every other aspect of playing offensive tackle and needs to improve across the board from a technical perspective. In short: he is a really raw player that needs time — and around 15 additional pounds on his frame — before he can be trusted on a down-to-down basis against NFL-level competition.
His hands are too inactive and not violent enough, and he often fails to stay in position or to keep his leverage against quicker defenders. Despite his agility, Cleveland is susceptible to inside moves and tends to oversell his position when trying to make edge rushers run the loop around the pocket. Furthermore, his balance is questionable and he needs to get stronger both in his upper and his lower half to get better in this area. At the moment he is too inconsistent at the point of attack despite having played against some middling competition in the Mountain West Conference.
What would be his role? Unless Yodny Cajuste’s recovery goes awry — he is expected to be fully available again by the time training camp gets kicked off — or Marcus Cannon gets traded to reduce his salary cap impact, Cleveland would likely serve as the team’s fourth option at the position in 2020. This might actually be the best-case scenario for him, though: Cleveland needs some serious development before becoming a backup/swing option let alone a starting-caliber player. Time would be a resource he would receive in New England.
How many downs can he play? A three-year starter at Boise State, Cleveland should be able to contribute on all four downs at the next level. As noted above, however, his career might start in reserve capacity which in turn would likely limit his actual impact during his rookie campaign to specific situations and special teams work. That said, he does offer starter-upside and therefore potential to play more downs than just the occasional one.
What is his special teams value? New England likes to use its offensive tackles in the kicking game, with both Marcus Cannon and third option/Isaiah Wynn stand-in Marshall Newhouse seeing regular snaps on field goal and extra point protection units in 2019. A similar role appears to be realistic for Cleveland as well — both during his rookie season and beyond.
Does he have positional versatility? Cleveland played exclusively at left tackle for the Broncos during the 2019 season, but should be able to function on the right side of the line and in a backup/swing tackle role as well. While he should not be expected to be used elsewhere along the offensive line, his intriguing athleticism might make him a candidate to see regular action as a tackle eligible and potential blocking tight end (think: Nate Solder during his 2011 rookie year).
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Two factors will determine whether or not his role increases between the 2020 and 2021 seasons: 1.) His overall development and technical growth; 2.) The other offensive tackles on the roster and how the team sees them. Realistically, Cleveland will be a much more complete player by Year Two and could find himself in a competition for the starting role opposite Wynn.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? New England currently has four offensive tackles under contract: Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon are the one-two at the position, with Yodny Cajuste expected to enter the season as the third option, and Korey Cunningham a depth option behind them. Cleveland would be guaranteed a roster spot as a possible third-round selection, with his playing time dependent on whether or not he can successfully challenge Cajuste’s standing on the depth chart. This seems unlikely given Cleveland’s rawness, though, meaning that he would probably spend the 2020 season as the team’s fourth tackle.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, New England appears to be well set at the offensive tackle position but the outlook could be a bit murky due to the various uncertainties surrounding the current top three options. Cleveland would likely not help with those when it comes to the 2020 season, but he would give the team a developmental option with considerable upside and the potential to one day earn a starting role. Investing a third- or fourth-round selection might be worth it from the Patriots’ perspective.
Why not the Patriots? Despite the questions surrounding Wynn, Cannon and Cajuste, New England might opt to not address the offensive tackle spot before later on Day Three. After all, the team has bigger needs at other positions in all three phases. The Patriots might therefore simply not be willing to invest in a developmental player like Cleveland relatively early in the draft, even though his ceiling certainly is an intriguing one. Furthermore, the Patriots may opt to shy away from a player that needs to add strength and mass and might lose some of his elite mobility in the process.
Verdict: In case New England opts to spend a mid-round selection on an offensive tackle in this year’s draft, Ezra Cleveland might be the most attractive option: he could be a starter in two or three years due to a combination of size and athletic profile that simply cannot be taught. If the Patriots are willing to grant the 21-year-old some time to develop, and feel good about his growth if he adds more mass to his frame and core strength, he certainly should be a player to watch in the late third or early fourth round.