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Patriots offensive line is projected to be among the best in the NFL this year even without Dante Scarnecchia

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Related: Retired Patriots O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia speaks highly of his successors

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NFL: NOV 20 Patriots at 49ers Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Dante Scarnecchia announced his first retirement from coaching the New England Patriots’ offensive line after the 2013 season, the team looked to the outside to find a replacement by hiring Dave DeGuglielmo. This time, it went a different route: with Scarnecchia again calling it a career earlier this year, the Patriots picked former assistant coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo in a joint role to help replace one of the best offensive line coaches the league has ever seen.

How Scarnecchia’s understudies will fare remains to be seen, but there is a belief that the line as a whole could improve in 2020.

Not only were the Patriots able to retain left guard Joe Thuney by placing the franchise tag on him ahead of free agency, they also will get center David Andrews back from injury after he had missed all of the 2019 season following the discovery of blood clots in his lungs. Add the fact that left tackle Isaiah Wynn and right guard Shaq Mason should be fully healthy as well after struggling with injury last year, and the improved depth at both tackle and the three interior spots, and you get the optimism surrounding the unit.

This optimism is also shared by Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo, who recently ranked the NFL’s 32 offensive lines heading into the new year. The Patriots’ came in seventh despite Scarnecchia no longer being around to guide it. The rationale behind this ranking is pretty straight forward: New England returns five quality starting options — or in Andrews’ case: gets them back from injured reserve — while simultaneously also having been able to build some solid depth behind them over the last year-plus.

While the likes of backups such as Yodny Cajuste, Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor and Michael Onwenu plays a role in the ranking, the starting-five are the main reason for it. Palazzolo had to say the following about each of them in his breakdown of the group:

LT Isaiah Wynn: “Wynn has played just 563 snaps after being drafted in the first round in 2018 and graded out at 70.7 overall last year, good for 34th among 89 tackles. Wynn got off to a good start in what was essentially his rookie season and showed he was capable in pass protection with a 75.0 grade.”

LG Joe Thuney: “Thuney has improved his grade in every season since entering the league in 2016. He finished with a 79.2 overall mark in 2019, good for fifth among guards. Thuney graded out at 88.0 as a pass protector, allowing just 17 pressures on 732 attempts after improving his ability to handle power players.”

C David Andrews: “Andrews returns after missing all of 2019 due to injury. Andrews has graded at 67.0 or better in each year as a starter from 2015 to 2018, including a career-high 82.1 mark in 2017.”

RG Shaq Mason: “Mason is one of the better run blockers in the league, capable of collapsing defenders at the line of scrimmage or locating them on the move. Mason’s 86.9 overall grade since 2016 ranks fifth among guards.”

RT Marcus Cannon: “Cannon has graded at 70.0-plus over the past four years, though last season’s 70.1 mark is his lowest during that span. He has developed into one of the more dependable right tackles in the league after turning his career around in 2016 with an 86.6 grade that tied for sixth among all tackles.”

While the effectiveness of PFF’s grading system can be questioned relative to how the Patriots themselves see each of the five players, the general tone is an accurate one: New England’s starting offensive linemen have each proven themselves and shown their talents. While some are more experienced than others — Marcus Cannon has appeared in 134 career games, Isaiah Wynn in just nine — the overall quality of the unit is intriguing. This is especially true with Andrews back in the lineup as the main communicator.

With neither Scarnecchia nor quarterback Tom Brady around to make the job easier, the five men up front will be under enormous pressure this year to help the Patriots offense transition into a new era. From a pure talent level, however, the group should be able to find success if it is able to stay mostly healthy — and thus justify its projected top-10 ranking.