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Patriots 2021 offseason preview: Has New England found its offensive tackles of the future?

Related: Patriots offseason preview: Tight end remains a work in progress for New England

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

While the NFL playoffs are still underway with fou teams left standing, the New England Patriots are already in the process of turning their attention towards what lies ahead: after not qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008, the offseason has arrived at Gillette Stadium — and it will be one of major intrigue considering that the 7-9 squad has a long list of players scheduled to enter free agency once the new league year begins.

With that in mind, let’s break down where the Patriots stand at this point in time one position after the other. Today, we continue things at offensive tackle.

Yodny Cajuste

Age: 24

Experience: 2

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Cajuste has a salary cap hit of $985,545 in 2021.

2020 review: Cajuste missed his entire rookie campaign after undergoing offseason quad surgery, and his second year in the NFL did not go any better: a knee injury forced him to miss the first week of regular season practices before he was eventually moved to injured reserve. The 24-year-old never returned off the list, and has therefore yet to appear in a game since joining the Patriots as a third-round draft choice in 2019.

2021 preview: Just like the last two years, Cajuste’s roster outlook is closely tied to his health. If he is good to participate in offseason workouts and training camp, the former third-round draft pick should get a chance to earn a prominent role on the Patriots’ offensive tackle depth chart. If not, however, his career in New England might come to an end sooner rather than later.

Marcus Cannon

Age: 32

Experience: 10

Contract status: Under contract through the 2022 season. Cannon has a salary cap hit of $9.62 million in 2021.

2020 review: Considering his age in combination with his contract status, Cannon was no lock to return for another season as New England’s starting right tackle. However, the team did not have to make a decision about his status just yet: the veteran, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma during the pre-draft process in 2011, decided to sit out the 2020 season by exercising the Coronavirus opt-out clause.

2021 preview: As was the case in 2020, Cannon is again far from a lock to be with the team in 2021. Not only have the Patriots seen the emergence of sixth-round draft pick Michael Onwenu, the long-time tackle also carries a salary cap number of $9.62 million — a sizable cap hit for a player his age and uncertain long-term outlook. Even if Cannon decides to return to the field this season, it seems unlikely the team will keep him at that high a cap hit.

Korey Cunningham

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Cunningham has a salary cap hit of $920,000 in 2021.

2020 review: Coming off a season in which he appeared in only one game, Cunningham’s second year as a Patriot did not go much differently. With Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron and Jermaine Eluemunor earning the top offensive tackle spots alongside Isaiah Wynn, the 25-year-old was again relegated to depth option. As such, Cunningham appeared in 11 games but still played only 46 offensive snaps — down from 59 one year before.

2021 preview: Even though he showed some versatility playing both tackle and guard, Cunningham’s outlook for the 2021 campaign is a murky one. It all depends on the Patriots’ moves along the offensive line this offseason, and whether or not the third or fourth tackle spots are still up for competition once the team is scheduled to head into its offseason workout program after the draft. Cunningham will likely get a shot at them, but based on his last two seasons will have to show some progress to stick around.

Jermaine Eluemunor

Age: 26

Experience: 4

Contract status: Set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 17.

2020 review: After Marcus Cannon’s opt-out, the Patriots opted to replace him with the most experienced right tackle left on their roster — one who also played plenty of guard in his career: Jermaine Eluemunor. He held down the fort ever since training camp and into the regular season, but was part of a rotation alongside rookie Michal Onwenu. When Eluemunor suffered an ankle injury in Week 6, Onwenu fully took over.

Eluemunor, meanwhile, was relegated to a depth option. While he moved back into a starting role after Isaiah Wynn’s season-ending knee injury in Week 11, he failed to hold onto it: Justin Herron took his job after a bad performance against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14, and held onto it until the season opener when Eluemunor was reinserted into the starting lineup again. For that to happen, however, Herron first had to be placed on IR himself.

2021 preview: Coming off an up-and-down 2020 campaign, Eluemunor is an interesting player to watch heading into free agency. He likely will not command top dollar, but one still has to wonder whether or not the team will bring him back after he effectively lost a starting job not once but twice. That said, his experience and versatility might make him an attractive low-cost option — especially if guard Joe Thuney departs and forces a reorganization up front that might free the right tackle spot up again.

Justin Herron

Age: 25

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Herron has a salary cap hit of $823,117 in 2021.

2020 review: Not only did sixth-round draft pick Justin Herron make the Patriots’ 53-man roster, he also saw considerable playing time during his first NFL season. Herron appeared in 12 games with five starts: he saw some time at right tackle, but primarily helped replace Isaiah Wynn at left tackle after he was lost for the season in Week 11. The youngster had his ups and downs, but he did gain some valuable experience during his rookie campaign.

2021 preview: Considering that the Patriots trusted him as their fourth offensive tackle heading into the season, and later gave him plenty of snaps on both sides of the line, the expectation should be that Herron will be back in 2021. What his role will eventually end up looking like remains to be seen, however. Everything seems to be on the table at this point in time — from starting at right tackle to serving as the number four on the depth chart.

Michael Onwenu

Age: 23

Experience: 1

Contract status: Under contract through the 2023 season. Onwenu has a salary cap hit of $830,617 in 2021.

2020 review: Based solely on the 2020 season there might not have been a bigger steal in that year’s draft than Michael Onwenu. The Michigan product was not drafted until the sixth round, but went on to appear in all 16 of New England’s games — including three as the Patriots’ starting right guard, one as the starting left guard, and 10 as the starting right tackle. Despite never having played at tackle in college, Onwenu looked outstanding.

The 23-year-old was impressive in the running game and also consistently held his own in pass protection. While the occasional rookie hiccup had to be expected, Onwenu showed that he is an NFL-caliber offensive lineman and as such likely a central piece of New England’s offensive line for years to come.

2021 preview: While he saw most of his action at right tackle in 2020, Onwenu might be asked to move back to the interior next season. At lot will depend on the free agency status of left guard Joe Thuney as well as the Patriots’ long-term outlook at the right tackle position — from Marcus Cannon’s contract, to Yodny Cajuste’s health, to Justin Herron’s projection, to Jermaine Eluemunor’s trip to free agency. One thing seems certain, though: Onwenu will be a starter regardless of where he lines up.

Isaiah Wynn

Age: 25

Experience: 3

Contract status: Under contract through the 2021 season. Wynn has a salary cap hit of $3.64 million in 2021.

2020 review: The Patriots’ former first-round investment missed considerable time due to injury in both 2018 and 2019, so seeing him start the team’s first 10 games of the 2020 season was certainly an encouraging development. Not just that, but Wynn looked like a bona fide starting left tackle and a player to build around for future seasons: his technique was impressive as both a run blocker and pass protector, and he worked well with left guard Joe Thuney on a week-to-week basis.

However, it was not meant to last: Wynn went down with a knee injury late in Week 11 against the Houston Texans, and was later placed on injured reserve — his third trip to the list in three years in the NFL. While the Patriots’ season script might have played a role in the team’s decision to shut him down, the fact remains that he ended a second year on IR.

2021 preview: As is the case with Yodny Cajuste, Wynn’s health will determine his long-term outlook with the Patriots. The main difference is that Wynn has already proven himself capable of holding down the fort at left tackle, and as such is a serious candidate to be kept at the position in both 2021 and beyond. New England will have to make a decision about the fifth-year option in his rookie deal, but this seems like a mere formality despite his injury concerns.

If the Patriots exercise that fifth year and Wynn can prove his durability in 2021 and 2022, and if Onwenu stays at right tackle, the team might have found its starting tandem of the future. That said, a lot can and might change over the next few weeks and months.