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Patriots 2020 roster breakdown: Justin Herron needs to show quick growth to make New England’s offensive tackle group

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Related: Patriots roster breakdown: OT Korey Cunningham

NCAA Football: Florida State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

With less than three weeks to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.

Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s draft class.

Hard facts

Name: Justin Herron

Position: Offensive tackle

Jersey number: TBD

Opening day age: 24

Size: 6-foot-4, 310 pounds

Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)

Experience

What is his experience? Given that he only arrived in the NFL in late April, when the Patriots selected him sixth round of the draft, Herron has no pro level experience worth speaking of. While he did participate in New England’s virtual offseason workouts and rookie developmental program, he has yet to step onto the practice fields with his new teammates due to the Coronavirus pandemic. With all that said, Herron still has plenty of experience stemming from his six-year stint at Wake Forest University.

While he was forced to take two redshirt seasons — one as a true freshman in 2014, the other due to a torn ACL suffered seven minutes into his 2018 campaign — Herron still appeared in a combined 51 games for the Demon Deacons. The team’s top option at left tackle since 2015, he finished his college career with a school-record 51 starts and was named third-team All-ACC twice (2017, 2019). Furthermore, he showed some constant improvement as a pass blocker and was named team captain in 2019.

What did his 2019 season look like? Herron was forced to miss virtually all of his 2018 campaign due to the aforementioned knee injury suffered on opening day, but he was able to return for a sixth season after successfully applying for a medical redshirt year. By the time he was back on the field in his usual role as Wake Forest’s starting left tackle, however, he no longer was a senior but already graduate student: Herron had earned his bachelor’s degree in communication and psychology in May 2019.

On the field, he also found some success in 2019. Herron was back in the starting lineup when the season was kicked off and went on to start all 13 of his team’s games while being on the field for a combined 1,017 offense snaps. While some inconsistent technique and his general rawness led to some issues in the running game, the first-time team captain was again serviceable as a pass protector: on the year, Herron gave up 13 quarterback pressures consisting of four sacks, four hits and five hurries.

All in all, his return to the field after what was almost a one-year absence was a positive one. Herron was eventually not just named to his second All-ACC team for his performance in 2019, but also received invitations to the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine.

2020 preview

What is his projected role? Even though he spent his entire career at Wake Forest as an offensive tackle, the Patriots announced Herron as a guard when the pick was made official. Moving him to the interior initially seemed like a natural move as his body type plus his lateral moving skills and flexibility made him appear to be a better fit on the inside at the next level. New England will reportedly try to keep him at his college position, however, which in turn means that he will be competing for a swing backup spot behind starting tackles Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon.

What is his special teams value? The Patriots like to regularly employ their offensive linemen in the kicking game as well — and Herron will likely not be an exception. Accordingly, the rookie should see regular action right away as a member of New England’s protection teams on both field goal and extra point attempts. Any role that goes beyond this usage should not be expected to be in the cards for him, however.

Does he have positional versatility? While he started his career in football on the defensive side of the ball back in high school, Herron’s versatility could be limited entering the next level — especially if New England is intent on keeping him at the tackle position. After all, the 24-year-old aligned exclusively on the left end of the offensive line in college and so far offers little experience elsewhere. Add the fact that he still has considerable room for growth from a technical perspective, and you could see why the Patriots might be hesitant to use him outside of what has been his comfort zone so far.

What is his salary cap situation? Shortly after he heard his name called as the 195th selection in this year’s draft, Herron signed a standard four-year rookie contract with the Patriots. As part of this pact, he is currently on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of just $43,117 — the 2020 proration of his signing bonus. If he makes the active roster in September and after the NFL’s top-51 rule has expired, however, that number will jump to $653,117 via addition of his base salary.

What is his roster outlook? New England appears to be set at the top of its offensive tackle position with Wynn and Cannon, but the backup spots behind the two are up for grabs. Herron is competing therefore competing against second-year man Yodny Cajuste — the presumptive front-runner for the number three spot — as well as 2018 trade acquisition Korey Cunningham. Both men have more experience in the system than the rookie, which means that he could be face an uphill climb this summer coming off an offseason with no on-field practices. While Herron’s upside is enticing, he will have to show some quick growth and might be headed towards the practice squad rather than the 53-man roster.