Before the beginning of the 2019 season, the New England Patriots’ interior offensive line suffered a major blow when the team’s undisputed starter the previous three years, David Andrews, was hospitalized 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 on short notice.
Fast forward to late April 2020 and New England’s outlook along the line remains unclear: Karras signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins in free agency, reports about Andrews’ recovery have been scarce, and Joe Thuney is no lock to be on the roster even after being assigned the franchise tag. Consequently, it would not be surprising to see the Patriots invest at least one draft pick this week to bolster their center and guard positions.
Cesar Ruiz, who started at both center at right guard during his three years at Michigan, appears to be one of the better options available. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Cesar Ruiz
School: Michigan (junior)
Opening day age: 21
2019 stats: 13 games; 919 snaps; 9 quarterback pressures surrendered (2 hits, 7 hurries)
Size: 6026, 307 lbs, 11.0 hand size, 33.13 arm length
Workout numbers: 5.08 40-yard dash, 7.91 three-cone drill, 4.64 short shuttle, 905 broad jump, 33.0 vertical jump, 28 bench press
Expected round: Late 1st-Early 2nd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Scouting combine
Strengths: While his size may not stand out, Ruiz is a commanding figure along the offensive line and brings some truly outstanding traits to the table that should translate well to the next level. For one, his athleticism is impressive for a player measured at 307 pounds at the scouting combine: Ruiz turns his hips really smoothly and hardly ever takes false steps when dropping back in pass protection or moving out as a pull or lead blocker. He also is good at disengaging from double-team blocks to move to the second level.
Ruiz moves very natural when asked to block in zone schemes or open space and has a terrific feel for playing with leverage. He also offers some tremendous balance when facing off against bigger pass rushers form the interior, and has a stout anchor that allows him to mirror very well in pass protection. Furthermore, Ruiz has some very good power both in his upper and his lower half. He may not be a pure power-blocker, but he has the feel and footwork to win his battles when asked to plow forward in running situations.
Those skills should allow him to move over to guard if need be after he started five games at right guard for the Wolverines back in 2017. At center, meanwhile, he has been asked to make the line calls and led the team’s offensive line well — all while also doing a good job of moving into position after the snap. On top of it all, Ruiz plays with the necessary tenacity to find success in the NFL and has been described as a very good teammate during his time in Ann Arbor.
Weaknesses: Ruiz is a terrific athlete who moves very well both in a phone booth and out in the open, but he is not the most explosive player out of his stance nor does he offer the best balance despite a stout build. Getting more steady with his pad level should be a goal upon entering the NFL, in order to hold down the fort against superior athletes than the ones he faced in the Big Ten. He has shown that he knows how to apply his technique in order to win his matchups both as a run blocker and a pass protector, but he just needs to get more consistent across the board.
Ruiz’s reach also is not necessarily ideal, although not a disqualifying issue by any means. While he is compactly built at almost 6-foot-3, he can have problems if defenders with longer arms engage him. Furthermore, he might benefit from dropping a few pounds to get in the 300-pound range which might improve his mobility even more.
What would be his role? Ruiz could potentially fill numerous spots along the Patriots’ interior offensive line — with the players currently on the roster likely impacting his eventual usage. He has the high floor to immediately step in at center in case David Andrews is not yet ready to resume starting duties, but also could potentially take over a vacancy at left guard in case New England does decide to trade Joe Thuney. Whenever the rookie sees the field, however, his role would look just like that of any other interior offensive lineman in New England’s scheme: he would be responsible for setting protections and handling the center-quarterback-exchange when lining up in the middle of the formation, and also serve as a potential lead/pull blocker when playing at guard.
How many downs can he play? Ruiz has the ability to contribute on all four downs but his usage would, again, depend on the statuses of Andrews and Thuney. If both are in the lineup to start the 2020 season, the Michigan product would likely be relegated to a backup role and see most of his action in the kicking game or an emergency depth option. If Andrews’ comeback has to be delayed, however, or Thuney does get traded, he might serve as a 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? Ruiz 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 Ruiz regardless of his eventual role on offense and the playing time associated with it.
Does he have positional versatility? Ruiz is capable of playing both center and guard, even though he might project better at the center position due to his comparative lack of length. That said, he could become an impact player and potential starter at either spot right away. His versatility extends beyond positional usage, however, as the 20-year-old also is capable of succeeding in various schemes: he has the mobility to succeed as a zone blocker, but also has the power at the point of attack to win in gap-blocking schemes.
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. If Ruiz is handed a starting role either at guard or center in 2020, the expectation should be that he keeps it in 2021 as well and in turn might only see growth in the form of his performance and confidence within New England’s system. In case he spends his first year in the NFL as a backup, however, he could see a significantly increased role by 2021 if Thuney plays the 2020 season under the franchise tag and leaves the Patriots via unrestricted free agency next year.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? If New England enters the 2020 season with its top interior lineup intact — David Andrews at center; Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason at left and right guard, respectively — Ruiz would be projected to 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 likely status as an early-round draft pick, but his eventual standing on the roster would depend on his performance against those three men. That said and as noted above, he could also be in the running for a starting job depending on Andrews’ and Thuney’s status.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots are facing considerable questions along their interior offensive line heading into 2020, and Ruiz could help answer them: he has the athleticism and experience to start at either center or guard, and also possesses long-term upside in case the team does return its top lineup for this season. Ruiz’s strengths also match very well with how New England likes to employ its interior offensive linemen — from his short-area quickness as a potential lead blocker on screen and pull plays, to his stout anchor in man-to-man and pass-blocking situations.
Why not the Patriots? In case New England feels confident in Andrews’ ability to come back strong from his absence, and if Thuney will remain on the roster heading into 2020 (and maybe beyond), the team may not feel the need to spend a first- or second-round selection in another interior offensive lineman — especially after already picking Hjalte Froholdt in the fourth last year. Even with Andrews and/or Thuney no locks to be on the roster, the team may look at its depth and decide against investing in Ruiz: Froholdt can play all three interior spots, while the Patriots also used the original fifth-round restricted free agency tender on Jermaine Eluemunor last month.
Verdict: Cesar Ruiz projects very favorably in the Patriots’ system. He offers outstanding athleticism and the desired versatility to play all three interior spots if need be, has experience calling the shots from the center position, and has considerable scheme-versatility. Adding him to New England’s offensive line would give the club a long-term solution at either center or guard — regardless of the situations involving David Andrews and Joe Thuney.