The New England Patriots’ center position suffered a blow before the beginning of the 2019 season: David Andrews, who had been the team’s undisputed starter the previous three years, was hospitalized in late August and later diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs. As a result of the diagnosis, the Patriots were forced to place their team captain on season-ending injured reserve and insert veteran backup Ted Karras into the starting lineup.
Fast forward eight months and New England’s outlook at the position remains somewhat murky: Karras signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins in free agency, while reports about Andrews’ recovery have been scarce. The 27-year-old appears to be trending in the right direction, but the center spot will be a question mark until he eventually returns to the field and shows that he can successfully pick up where he left off last summer.
Consequently, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots invest a draft pick in a center this year. Matt Hennessy, a three-year starter at the position at Temple, appears to be one of the more attractive players available. Let’s therefore take a closer look at him.
Name: Matt Hennessy
School: Temple (redshirt junior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 12 games; 889 snaps; 4 quarterback pressures surrendered (1 hit, 3 hurries)
Size: 6037, 307 lbs, 10.0 hand size, 32.25 arm length
Workout numbers: 5.18 40-yard dash, 7.45 three-cone drill, 4.6 short shuttle, 902 broad jump, 30.0 vertical jump, 23 bench press
Expected round: 3rd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
Strengths: Hennessy enters the draft as a well-rounded prospect in terms of his technical foundation and his athleticism: he plays with the desired blend of leverage and aggressiveness, and has a natural feel for bending his hips and staying square in his stance even when challenged up high; he has tremendous balance; he is good at sustaining his blocks and engaging defenders with a good first push; he moves very well laterally and projects well as a zone blocker and in move-out or screen situations; he has a quick transition from the snap to his pass-blocking sets.
One of Hennessy’s most intriguing traits might be his intelligence, though. He brings a high football IQ to the table and has plenty of experience to make the line protection calls. Furthermore, he reads defenders well in open space and also is capable of dealing with stunts or other movement up front. The 22-year-old also reacts well when left with nobody to block and is solid when it comes to peeling off of double-team blocks and getting to the second level.
Hennessy, who graduated with a finance degree last spring, also brings plenty of durability and toughness to the table: in 2018, he started wearing a single-digit jersey in practice and as a sticker on his helmet as a symbol honoring the toughest players on the Owls.
Weaknesses: There is little not to like about Hennessy’s game, but there are still some areas that might need a bit of improvement as he transitions from the college game to the NFL. For example, his strength at the point of attack is serviceable but might hinder him at the next level — he needs to get better at moving defenders backwards instead of simply absorbing their blows, and also may benefit from putting some additional mass on his frame.
His upside may also be limited: while he is a natural athlete that moves well, he does not project as favorably in man-blocking schemes as he does in zone-based systems. Furthermore, he needs to get a bit more consistent in maintaining his pad-level and has virtually no experience when it comes to the center-quarterback-exchange when the passer lines up directly under center — Hennessy is a shotgun center first and foremost.
What would be his role? Hennessy’s potential role in New England would be tied to David Andrews’ recovery: if the veteran returns to the lineup and shows no obvious signs of rust, the rookie would likely play second fiddle at the position; if Andrews needs more time to get up to speed, Hennessy might get inserted into the starting lineup alongside veteran guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. The best-case scenario from the Patriots’ perspective would be the first one, though. That said, whenever the rookie would be on the field his role would look just like that of any other center in New England’s scheme: he would be responsible for setting protections, lead the offensive line’s charge — sometimes even as a pull-blocker — and handle the center-quarterback-exchange.
How many downs can he play? Hennessy has the ability to contribute on all four downs but his usage would, of course, depend on Andrews’ status. Whenever the two-time Super Bowl champion returns to fill his usual role as the Patriots’ starting center, Hennessy would likely be relegated to a backup role and see most of his action in the kicking game or an emergency backup at the center spot moving forward. If Andrews’ comeback has to be delayed, however, he might serve as the top option right away and thus appear on all three offensive downs and maybe on special teams as well.
What is his special teams value? Hennessy could see regular action as a blocker on field goal and extra point protection units, similar to how the team used Ted Karras during his four years with the club: in 2019, despite serving as the Patriots’ starting center, Karras was on the field for 77 of a possible 474 kicking game snaps (16.2%). A similar usage would not be unrealistic for Hennessy regardless of his eventual role on offense.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though he spent most of his time at Temple as the team’s starting center, Hennessy does have a little bit of experience at other positions as well: he started one game during his freshman season at left guard, and was used as a tackle in high school. He projects more favorable on the interior, though, and could turn into a quality backup at all three positions — similar to the role Karras held between 2016 and 2018 — or even a starter.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Again, the answer to that question largely depends on the status of other players on the team. The best-case for the Patriots in 2020 would be to have Hennessy as a versatile backup whose smarts should allow him to be inserted into the starting lineup on short notice. There is a scenario in which he could see an increased role even if David Andrews is at full strength: left guard Joe Thuney is currently on the franchise tag and a candidate to leave the organization either via trade or when he is scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next month. In that case, Hennessy would be an option to replace him.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If the Patriots enter the 2020 season with their top interior line intact — David Andrews at center, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason at guard — Hennessy would compete for the top backup role against three players currently under contract: Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor and Najee Toran. He would be guaranteed a spot on the team due to his projected status as a third-round draft pick, but his eventual standing on the roster would depend on his performance against those three men. Depending on the other pieces higher up on the depth chart, however, he could also be in the running for a starting job.
Why the Patriots? As noted above, the Patriots face some questions along their interior line this offseason. Andrews is no lock to return at full strength, Karras is gone, and none of the current other options have much experience or proven production in the NFL. Granted, a rookie would not help address the latter issues, but he could give the team another quality option in case things develop badly especially at center: Hennessy enters the league with starter upside, and might be able to fill that starting role right away.
Why not the Patriots? If the team feels confident in Andrews’ ability to come back strong from his absence, it may not feel the need to invest a Day Two selection in another interior offensive lineman — especially after already picking Hjalte Froholdt in the fourth round last year. But even with Andrews possibly not yet ready to make a comeback, the team may have ample depth: Froholdt can play all three interior spots, while the Patriots also used the original fifth-round restricted free agency tender on Jermaine Eluemunor in March.
Verdict: Hennessy checks plenty of the boxes the Patriots are looking for in their linemen: he has the smarts and a solid athletic and technical foundation to succeed in the team’s scheme, and also offers experience and toughness. He is a good prospect that could serve as a quality backup early on in his career, but brings starter upside to the table. While New England’s need at center is largely dependent on other factors, there is little doubt he would work well in a Patriots scheme that incorporates plenty of zone blocking.