After facing the Houston Texans with four of five starters along the offensive line out, the New England Patriots are slowly getting back to full strength up front. While offensive tackles Isaiah Wynn (Covid-19) and Trent Brown (injured reserve) remain out for the time being, the team’s two starting guards returned to practice on Thursday.
Michael Onwenu was activated off the Coronavirus reserve list and participating in full; Shaq Mason was limited with an abdominal injury, but he still appears to be trending in the right direction after sitting out Wednesday’s practice.
Neither Onwenu nor Mason were active for the game in Houston, leaving starting center David Andrews flanked by practice squad call-up James Ferentz and Ted Karras. Despite the personnel changes, the unit as a whole performed admirably for most of the game with one of the stand-ins in particular standing out: Karras had an impressive game filling Mason’s right guard spot.
The Patriots’ coaching staff therefore has a decision to make with both Mason and Onwenu returning to the lineup soon: What to do with Ted Karras?
Under normal circumstances, Karras would fill the top interior backup role behind the starting trio of Onwenu, Andrews and Mason. With the Patriots also currently down their two starting tackles, however, they could opt to make additional moves with the ultimate goal of getting the best five players onto the field.
The question therefore becomes whether or not Karras is among the top five at the moment. His performance versus the Texans and the previous week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — he entered the game for Michael Onwenu halfway in — is a strong argument in his favor, especially when comparing him to the team’s backup tackles.
With Wynn remaining on the Covid-19 list and Brown missing all but the first seven snaps this season, New England could enter the upcoming game against the Dallas Cowboys with the following starting line.
LT Justin Herron/LT Yodny Cajuste* — LG Ted Karras — C David Andrews — RG Shaq Mason — RT Michael Onwenu
*Herron missed the first two practices of the week with an abdominal injury
Depending on Herron’s status, this lineup would arguably feature the top five players line coach Carmen Bricillo has available at the moment.
Onwenu’s positional flexibility is the key here. The second-year man has started the first four games of the year at left guard, but he has considerable experience at right tackle after filling the role down the stretch in 2020. And while Yodny Cajuste looked serviceable filling that spot in Houston, Onwenu might just be the better option of the two until Brown’s return. He might even be a better option than fellow second-year man Justin Herron.
Again, the goal is to get the five best blockers onto the field
In a next step, with Wynn getting cleared to return, the line would then transform as follows:
LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Ted Karras — C David Andrews — RG Shaq Mason — RT Michael Onwenu
Once Brown is back from his stint on injured reserve, he would eventually take over the right tackle position again which would free Onwenu up to move back inside. As a consequence, Karras would be moved back to his second-string spot.
Until that happens, however, there is a case to be made for the 28-year-old to keep his starting spot even with Onwenu and Mason back from their respective absences. The question is whether or not New England’s coaching staff see it the same way.
We will find out on Sunday.