Heading towards training camp, the expectation was that the New England Patriots’ starting offensive line was set in stone. David Andrews would return from a one-year absence to fill the center position, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason would serve as the left and right guards, respectively, and Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon would be the two offensive tackles. Cannon deciding to opt out of the 2020 season over Coronavirus concerns, however, changes the picture and leaves the Patriots with an open competition for the starting right tackle spot.
Replacing the veteran lineman might actually be the Patriots’ biggest challenge in relation to their six player opt-outs considering that the depth behind has yet to prove itself in New England’s system. With that said, let’s meet the group of contestants:
OT Yodny Cajuste, OT Korey Cunningham, OT Justin Herron, G/OT Jermaine Eluemunor
While Cannon held down the fort at right tackle since 2016 and was about to enter his 10th season as a member of the Patriots’ offensive line, the players fighting for his vacant job have little to no experience.
Former third-round draft pick Yodny Cajuste is in his first true year in the NFL after missing his entire 2019 rookie campaign following offseason quad surgery; Korey Cunningham was acquired via trade last year and subsequently appeared in just one game; Justin Herron is a rookie who has yet to step onto the practice field with his teammates. Together, the three have appeared in a combined seven NFL games — all of which played by Cunningham while he was still with the Arizona Cardinals.
The most seasoned participant in the competition is actually Jermaine Eluemunor. Not only does the 25-year-old have experience playing both guard and tackle, he also has appeared in 28 games over the course of his three-year career as a pro — 10 of which after the Patriots acquired him via trade last August. Even if Eluemunor is considered a part of the mix, it is clear that New England lacks pedigree at right tackle following Cannon’s opt-out.
The deciding factors
Technique: The offensive tackle position is a highly technical one, and the expectation is that new position coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo will also put a premium in players having sound fundamentals and using them consistently. Whoever fails to do this or does not show proper progress will not have much of a future in New England, let alone when it comes to filling a starting spot previously occupied by one of the better right tackles in football.
Athleticism and playing strength: You can have a spotless technique, but if you lack an adequate athletic skillset — quickness, coordination, strength — as an offensive tackle in today’s NFL you will have a hard time. Not all depth tackles on New England’s current team are as impressive as Yodny Cajuste in this area, but they need to show enough upside to warrant keeping around as developmental swing or emergency options.
Awareness: Defenders do not just use brute strength to win their matchups, teams oftentimes rely on scheme to get them free. Offensive tackles, therefore, need to be able to read what is happening in front of them and react accordingly no matter if they are run blocking or pass protecting. On top of it all, they also need to be aware of their own positioning on the field and how deep they move back or forward in their sets.
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 offensive tackles this means being able to get on the same page as the guards: Shaq Mason is one of the best players the position has to offer, but the right side of the line can only be as good as his chemistry with whoever wins the starting job allows it to be.
Versatility: While the main goal of the competition is to find a starter opposite Isaiah Wynn, the trickle-down effect of Cannon’s opt-out also impacts the third tackle spot: the swing/backup role held by Marshall Newhouse last year is also up for grabs, and versatility may be a trump card for those competing for it. Few players are more impressive in this area as Jermaine Eluemunor, who was used at left guard and right tackle last year and also has experience playing right guard and left tackle from his time in Baltimore.
While other players have the edge in terms of experience, Cajuste could be seen as the frontrunner to fill Cannon’s sizable shoes this year. He was already seen as the leading candidate to earn the number three role behind Cannon and Isaiah Wynn entering this year, as his size, strength and physicality are all impressive. While the rawness he displayed in college and his injury history are obvious red flags, the 24-year-old has all the tools to develop into a starting-caliber tackle at the next level.
If Cajuste can prove himself an active learner and show an improved technique compared to his time at West Virginia, it will be tough for the other offensive tackles to earn the starting job over him. If not, however, the Patriots might turn to one of their more experienced options — or maybe even look to the free agency market for relief. One player who remains unsigned at this point in time stands out: the aforementioned Marshall Newhouse.
The 31-year-old remains spent most of last year in New England as a short-term replacement for an injured Isaiah Wynn. Newhouse had his fair share of issues, but was brought into a challenging situation by not joining the team until the regular season had already begun. His experience within the system and the general timing of the situation could work in his favor this time around, and give the Patriots a safety blanket option in case neither Cajuste nor the other candidates prove themselves worthy of a starting role this summer.