Offensive line isn’t a high-priority need to build the 2020 New England Patriots roster, especially at tackle, but given the vital importance of the position it’s better to address that need a year early versus a year late.
The team is currently projected to have Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon as their starting tackles with 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste as the primary backup. Wynn and Cannon have had their injury problems, and the former has played in only nine of 36 possible games over two years. Cajuste missed the 2019 season recovering from a March 2019 surgery to fix a torn quadriceps muscle and was delayed enough to the point where the Patriots elected to keep him on the non-football injury list for the entire season. Despite three starting-level players atop the depth chart, there isn’t a lot of reliability to work with.
The Patriots will likely miss out on the top-five left tackle prospects in the draft simply due to holding the 23rd pick, but there are plenty of options to look at. One of them is Houston’s Joshua Jones, who they already video-called last month.
Name: Joshua Jones
Position: Offensive tackle
School: Houston (Redshirt Senior)
2019 Stats: 93.2 Pro Football Focus Grade (one of the highest they’ve recorded for a non-Power Five prospect at the position), allowed only four pressures on 325 pass blocking snaps
Week 1 Age: 23
Size: 6’5”, 319 pounds, 33 7/8” arms
Expected Round: Mid-to-late first round
Strengths: Jones is an explosive, athletic left tackle prospect who checks off all the boxes for size, length and demeanor. Despite playing against weaker competition, Jones dominated the league as a four-year starter and earned an invite to the Senior Bowl. There he was one of the most dominant linemen, winning 54 percent of his one-on-one matchups and ballooning his stock to the first round. He’s more dominant in the run game, easily being able to fire out of his stance (he tested well in the vertical and broad jump at the combine) and climb to the second level. He’s also got the athleticism to be able to make difficult reach blocks in the run game and the feet to mirror pass rushers in pass protection.
Weaknesses: The biggest issue comes down to injuries and competition level. Jones missed nine games in his redshirt-senior season, including the final three games, due to knee injuries. His pass-pro technique will need to be coached up and refined before he can be left on an island at the left tackle spot. I’m pretty confident he will be able to fix those problems.
Who does he have to beat out? No one. Jones is a roster lock if drafted, but he’s competing with Cajuste, Wynn, and Cannon for a starting role on the offensive line. Cajuste would be his primary source of competition as the top backup on the line.
Potential 2020 role: This will be decided in training camp, but Jones could either end up as a starter, the top backup, or a healthy scratch whose contributions aren’t seen by the fans. Even if he isn’t a starter, there are ways to get him on the field. Go back to 2014, in which the Patriots employed a 6-OL game plan to bully the Colts on the ground, as an example for how to utilize Jones. That will allow the team to get value out of what he’s best at while giving him easier pass pro reps off play-action because the opponent is keying on run.
Long-term role: Assuming that Wynn, Cajuste, and Jones are healthy and you have a problem, the good kind to have. You have three starting-level tackles and only two places to play them. The solution is to move Wynn to left guard, a position he played in college, and then figure out the center position. Joe Thuney is currently on the franchise tag and David Andrews has one year left on his deal before hitting free agency. At the end of the day, the team prioritizes putting the best 11-man unit on the field. In this alignment, Jones projects to end up as the team’s starting left tackle with Cajuste at right tackle.
How many downs can he contribute? All three offensive downs if he reaches his ceiling. We’re talking about a potential franchise left tackle prospect.
Why the Patriots? What is the best way to ensure that Jarrett Stidham has a smooth landing in the NFL? Elite offensive line play! Jones might not make the O-line significantly better as a unit in 2020, but the long-term upside is worth a redshirt season since first-round picks come with up to five years of team control. The Patriots don’t have a lot of certainty with three players who have missed time to recent injuries or playing through severe pain. Jones can impact the team as an extra blocker at the goal line or against lighter defenses while learning the ropes as a rookie before taking over at the left tackle position in Years 2 or 3.
Why not the Patriots? The first reason would be simply lack of availability. Jones could go as high as the Top 15, as it only takes one team falling in love with him to do that. The second reason is a tackle prospect doesn’t necessarily bring the best return on investment when the team has their top-three players at the position signed through the 2021 season. The team drafted Wynn in 2018 to back up Trent Brown and Cannon, although this situation is different because Brown was a one-year rental looking to cash in with a good year in New England. A player at another position like Zack Baun may be more enticing and they go another route with their top pick.
Verdict: Jones is the best offensive line prospect who could be available to the Patriots at the 23rd pick of the draft. If the team feels the best way to win is ensuring that the offensive line is covered, then I would not be surprised if Jones is the lucky man with their first-round pick. Dante Scarnecchia is not there any more, but Jones would be joining a very experienced offensive line room with Thuney, Mason, and Cannon being there for years. After learning the speed of the game and how to play the left tackle position as a rookie, I could see him developing into a reliable stalwart at the position for the next four years.