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Identifying the 2020 Patriots’ biggest Achilles heel

Related: ‘Ready-to-go mentality’ has helped Jermaine Eluemunor climb atop the Patriots’ right tackle depth chart

New England Patriots Training Camp Photo by Michael Dwyer-Pool/Getty Images

Whether you brand it as rebuilding or reloading, it cannot be denied that the New England Patriots need to find a way to replace some serious talent in 2020 that was lost over the course of the offseason. Tom Brady is obviously the biggest name on the list, but the team also has to move forward without other cornerstone players — from free agency departures such as Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins to player opt-outs like Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung.

One departee stands out above the rest, however, at least as far as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is concerned: right tackle Marcus Cannon, who also decided to opt out of the upcoming campaign due to concerns surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Barnwell recently released his list of the 20 big weaknesses for the 20 contenders heading into the 2020 season, and the Patriots’ right tackle situation came in at number two.

Barnwell’s perspective on the position is stated as follows:

2. New England Patriots

Achilles’ heel: right tackle

Projected starter: Jermaine Eluemunor

No team was hit harder by opt-outs than the Patriots. In addition to losing veterans Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung on defense, they will be without another longtime contributor in right tackle Marcus Cannon this season. Bill Belichick also lost legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired for the second time in seven years.

With little depth at tackle and a pair of stout guards in Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, it appears New England could hand the right tackle job to an interior lineman. Belichick traded last year a fourth-round pick to the Ravens for Eluemunor and a sixth-round selection, but the Texas A&M product played only 29 offensive snaps. Belichick doubled down by tendering the restricted free agent a one-year, $2.1-million deal. Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste would figure as the replacements if Eluemunor struggles. This is a major situation to watch, especially given the fragility of new Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.

The Patriots’ right tackle situation is indeed one of the biggest question marks on the roster. Cannon held down the fort ever since his ascension to the starter role in 2016, and has been a serviceable presence on the outside shoulder of right guard Shaq Mason. With the veteran now gone, Jermaine Eluemunor has established himself as the frontrunner to take over the top job this summer.

Eluemunor first arrived in New England last August, when the Patriots sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Ravens to acquire him and a sixth-round selection. He went on to appear in 10 of his new team’s 17 combined games in 2019 as a backup lineman who received occasional playing time at both guard and tackle. While he is more than “just” an interior lineman, as alluded to by Barnwell, Eluemunor never proved himself much more than an emergency option for the Patriots.

This is obviously expected to change heading into the 2020 season. After playing just 29 offensive snaps last season — primarily as a run-blocker in late-game situations — Eluemunor has seen the majority of practice reps at Cannon’s former spot this summer. While his 6-foot-4, 340-pound frame makes him look more like a guard than a tackle, and could create some problems again speed rushers trying to win around the edge, he has looked serviceable so far in practice.

Does this make his position the biggest Achilles heel on the team’s roster heading into 2020?

The question cannot be definitively answered with only limited training camp access and no preseason football to properly evaluate Eluemunor’s performance. There are some arguments in favor of Barnwell’s decision to pick the spot — from Elumunor’s uninspiring track record in the NFL to the lack of proven depth behind him — but also quite a few against it: quarterback is a major question mark, as is the turnover at other positions, or what could be a lack of high-upside talent at wide receiver and tight end.

Putting it all together, however, the Patriots’ biggest Achilles heel heading into 2020 could very well be inexperience. Not naming a concrete position may be cheating a bit, but this more than one single spot in the lineup could become an issue for New England this year.

Take the aforementioned right tackle spot. Eluemunor has appeared in 28 games over the course of his first three years in the NFL, but he has not yet started even a single contest at the position he will likely hold down this year. Yes, he did practice at right tackle all summer, but he still lacks in-game experience — something that can also be said for other players on the roster expected to see considerable action for the Patriots this year.

Between a quarterback who is still getting used to a new offense (Cam Newton), a pair of rookie tight ends (Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene), some new linebackers (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Cassh Maluia, Brandon Copeland) and a new-look safety group behind long-time starter Devin McCourty (Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips), the Patriots have a lot of inexperienced players to incorporate into their system. How quickly they can get up to speed could very much make or break New England this year.

Right tackle is a potential Achilles heel, yes, but all those other positions could also turn out to be a fatal flaw if players do not properly develop throughout the season.