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Patriots 2020 training camp competitions to watch: Backup interior offensive line

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New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As important as it is to have competent starters along the interior offensive line, the backup positions also carry an immense value — something the New England Patriots found out last year when starting center David Andrews was sent to season-ending injured reserve and both his replacement Ted Karras and right guard Shaq Mason had to miss time due to injury. Andrews and Mason will be back this year, with left guard Joe Thuney also being retained via the franchise tag, but the depth behind them will be worth keeping an eye on.

With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the competition for the interior line spots.

The competitors

G/C Hjalte Froholdt, G/T Jermaine Eluemunor, G Michael Onwenu, C/G Dustin Woodard, C/G Najee Toran

New England does have some upside on its roster at its guard and center positions, but comparatively little experience. The five men listed above have played just 321 combined snaps of offensive football in the NFL — all of which courtesy of Jermaine Eluemunor, who was acquired via trade last year and went on to play 29 snaps as a backup guard. That said, Froholdt has played some encouraging football as a rookie, while the other three have either shown impressive athletic traits or solid versatility so far in their careers.

The deciding factors

Communication: The offensive line needs to operate as a unit which means that the five (or sometimes more) players on the field need to have a common understanding of concepts and defensive looks. For the interior offensive line this ranges from being on the same page as the players flanking them on both sides, to successfully performing combo or peel-off blocks, to communicating with the quarterback when setting the protection from the center position.

Technique: From footwork to hand usage to setting a firm anchor — successfully using one’s technique is vital to playing along the offensive line. Few coaches were as demanding in this regard as the Patriots’ Dante Scarnecchia, and it would not be a surprise to see his successors Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo take a similar approach. If a player does not show sound fundamentals or uses them on an inconsistent basis, or is unable to make proper progress in his development, he will not have much of a future in New England.

Functional strength: You can have a spotless technique, but if you lack the adequate strength to win one-on-ones against NFL-caliber defensive tackles, you are going to have a hard time. Sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu stands out in this area based on his three-year career as Michigan’s starting right tackle, but the others also need to show enough upside and power to warrant keeping around as developmental or emergency options.

Moving skills and vision: Within their blocking schemes, which feature elements from both zone and man concepts, the Patriots regularly ask their interior linemen to perform blocks while on the move. They therefore play a pivotal role in the success of plays. Not only do the guards serve as pull blockers in the running game, the center also is regularly asked to kick out — one of the toughest blocking assignments for any lineman. A player needs the necessary moving skills and vision to perform this assignment.

Versatility: The Patriots usually keep only eight or nine offensive linemen on their roster, so versatility may be a trump card for those competing in camp. Hjalte Froholdt, Dustin Woodard and Najee Toran all have experience playing guard and center; Jermaine Eluemunor has experience lining up at both guard and tackle. Possibly the highest-upside player in the current interior group — Michael Onwenu — might be the least versatile of the five men considering that he played exclusively at right guard in college.

The prediction

The Patriots carried nine offensive linemen on their 53-man roster, with two spots reserved for the interior backups. There are quite a few factors speaking for a repeat of this approach in 2020:

1.) Teams are able to name 48 players for their active game day rosters if they carry at least eight offensive linemen. Keeping more linemen on the squad therefore makes sense, if it does not compromise depth at other positions.

2.) The Patriots have spent considerable resources in their interior O-line over the last year-plus, and it would be a surprise to see them cut ties with their investments fairly quickly.

3.) While Shaq Mason is under contract through the 2023 season, both Joe Thuney and David Andrews are headed for unrestricted free agency next spring. Thuney in particular seems to be a candidate to leave town.

4.) While Andrews has been medically cleared to return to the field, it remains to be seen how he will actually look like — especially with the Coronavirus pandemic still a threat hanging over the season and potentially vulnerable players such as him.

Add all of those factors up and you get a need for competent depth along the interior offensive line. It would therefore not be a surprise if the Patriots kept two additional players on their roster behind the Thuney-Andrews-Mason trifecta atop the depth chart. From the current point of view and considering the lack of an offseason due to Covid-19, Hjalte Froholdt and Jermaine Eluemunor seem to be the frontrunners: they have the necessary versatility to back up more than one spot and have also shown some flashes so far in their respective pro careers.

As for the other three men — Michael Onwenu, Dustin Woodard, Najee Toran — they will likely compete for practice squad spots with the option of being promoted to the expanded 55-man game day rosters should a need arise. Onwenu in particular is an intriguing option considering his raw athleticism and impressive size. A year behind the scenes could do wonders for his development and adaptation process to the NFL.