In 2020, the strength of the New England Patriots offense was its blocking up front. The Patriots ran for 2,346 yards on 4.7 yards per carry last season with their top back, Damien Harris, averaging more than 5.0 yards per rush. However, with as good as the team’s offensive line performed, the position is very uncertain beyond 2021, especially at the tackle position.
Marcus Cannon opted out of the 2020 season and Isaiah Wynn’s inability to stay healthy forced the team to play Michael Onwenu and Jermaine Eluemunor out of position on the line even though both players more than held their own. Looking at the long-term status of the offensive line, however, Onwenu is projected to replace Joe Thuney at the left guard position if the latter — as expected — walks in free agency.
Fellow sixth-round draft pick Justin Herron seems like the natural person to slot in at the right tackle position, which just asks the question of what to do on the other end of the line. Wynn is under contract for this season and could see his fifth-year option declined after three injury-riddled seasons. This could open up a roster hole a year from now. Looking at the 2021 draft, though, there are multiple franchise-level tackles to choose from.
Name: Liam Eichenberg
Position: Offensive tackle
School: Notre Dame (Redshirt-Senior)
Size: 6’6”, 305 lbs
Expect Draft Range: 1st (20-30th overall)
Strengths: Eichenberg is one of the best run blocking tackles in the draft and is technically proficient in pass protection as well. His skillset in that department projects very well to the Patriots’ run scheme, which utilizes a lot of gap blocking. He’s especially lethal on double-team blocks with the tight end or left guard and can climb to the second level to take on a linebacker in order to blow open runs. Considering New England already boasts two of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he should fit right in.
In addition to his prowess as a run blocker, he’s also sturdy in pass protection. In 455 pass blocking snaps, he did not allow a single sack according to Pro Football Focus — all that despite dealing with a quarterback with virtually no pocket presence. Considering that Notre Dame played mostly ACC teams and took on Alabama in the College Football Playoff, that was some steep competition he had to face while keeping his QB off the turf.
Eichenberg is capable of starting right away if called upon. His run blocking will put him on the field as a rookie and could easily make him compete for the third tackle role before taking over as a starting left tackle later on.
Weaknesses: If there is one glaring flaw, Eichenberg isn’t the most athletic player at the left tackle position. Faster, more athletic edge rushers can beat him outside and he is a little susceptible to a bull rush if he sets improperly. This is mostly nitpicking, as Matt Light and Nate Solder had similar issues before going on to have strong careers in New England and help the team win multiple Super Bowls.
Why should the Patriots draft him: Left tackles are so valuable that you need to draft them a year early now than when you need them. Even without a clear path to the starting lineup, Eichenberg will see at least semi-regular snaps in certain packages on offense and special teams as a rookie. The lack of certainty at the position after this season creates a big enough need that a player of his caliber is worth gambling on versus a defender who may be able to get more regular snaps as a rookie.
Also, the presence of Eichenberg on the roster could allow for the Patriots to move on from Wynn for a player who is more likely to play 12+ games a year.
Even though the Patriots lack a quarterback right now, the priority might be to build a roster strong enough to support one and get the QB through the trade or free agent market. Taking care of that passer’s blindside for the next five years goes a long way towards fixing the offense. The team could also afford to pick up a couple mid-round picks and trade back from No. 15 to the early 20s and expect Eichenberg to still be on the board if he is the target in Round One.
Why the Patriots might not draft him: It will come down to how the board develops and if a player at another position provides better value, or if a player like Rashawn Slater drops to No. 15. Eichenberg is more of a guy New England will target later in the first round and the team certainly could use players at other positions who provide better value closer to the Patriots’ current first round pick.
The only football reason I can think of them passing on him and going elsewhere is that Eichenberg isn’t the most athletic guy out there. The Patriots typically place athleticism as one of their top traits at the tackle position.
Who does he have to beat out: Eichenberg would be guaranteed a roster spot for at least three seasons due to being a first-round draft pick. However, he is already good enough to push Justin Herron for a starting role and could be the team’s best option at the third tackle position while working his way up to replace Isaiah Wynn at left tackle in Year Two.
2021 role: Eichenberg will be used in different packages as a rookie, with him coming in when the Patriots want to add a sixth blocker as an eligible tackle to fortify the run game. That is what they have done to get their young tackles on the field in the past — a list that includes Tom Ashworth, Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder, and Cameron Fleming. Eichenberg is a tenacious run blocker and is sturdy in pass protection, so he should hold his own rather early in his career.
Additionally, he would be great depth for the seemingly inevitable Wynn injury, as the former first rounder has spent time on injured reserve in all three of his seasons in the NFL. Eichenberg would be able to keep the unit afloat. That should give Eichenberg and the team a significant number of snaps to determine if he is ready to make the transition to a full-time starting role in Year Two.
2022 and beyond role: The plan would be for Eichenberg to take over at left tackle after the Patriots let Wynn walk in free agency or optionally move him to either right tackle or maybe even a guard spot. With Eichenberg and Onwenu, the left side of the offensive line would be in great shape for the foreseeable future. You are also hoping that Shaq Mason and Herron are able to fortify the right side of the line.
Conclusion: Franchise level left tackles are extremely hard to find in the draft and the Patriots have a chance to get one this year. Not only do they not have to worry about trading up, but they could add some value in the draft on Day Two and beginning of Day Three by moving down a few picks and still being in a position to take Eichenberg.
The number one priority towards rebuilding an offense is ensuring that the quarterback is able to effectively be able to drop back and successfully make those reads. While the team does need to add more playmakers at every skill position in the passing game, they will not able to do their jobs if the QB consistently finds himself on his back due to inadequate blocking up front.
The one spot where the Patriots have been one of the most successful teams in drafting and development has been the offensive line. The team has been able to get the most out of its players at the position group, regardless of draft status or who they block for. I believe fortifying the meat and potatoes of the offense is critical for its future success and development.