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Patriots 2021 free agency preview: Veteran market could help New England bolster its interior offensive line

Related: Patriots free agency preview: Which offensive tackles make sense after the Trent Brown trade?

Miami Dolphins Training Camp Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Despite seeing plenty of short-term turnover throughout the season, the New England Patriots’ offensive line was one of the strengths of the team in 2020. Heading into the offseason, however, the unit could see some major changes with two starters — left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews — both headed for unrestricted free agency.

The Patriots do have some options to replace the two veterans should push come to shove, but adding more proven talent in free agency or via the draft could still be on their to-do list. As 2020 showed not just for New England, having depth along the offensive line is never a bad thing. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs’ high-flying offense that was derailed in the Super Bowl when its O-line fell apart.

Before digging into the free agent options that might be available for the Patriots later this month, let’s first take a closer look at who the team currently has under contract for the 2021 season at the position:

  • Marcus Martin
  • Shaq Mason
  • Najee Toran
  • Ross Reynolds

At the moment, New England is rather thin along the interior O-line. Out of the four players they have under contract, only Shaq Mason has started a game as a Patriot. The others can at best be considered as backups. That said, the recent trade acquisition of tackle Trent Brown will likely also impact this position group: with Brown expected to take one of the starting spots on the edge of the line, one of 2020’s starters — either Isaiah Wynn or, more likely, Michael Onwenu — could be moved to the inside to take over at left guard.

Three members of New England’s 2020 payroll are furthermore headed for free agency once the market opens on March 17:

  • David Andrews (UFA)
  • James Ferentz (UFA)
  • Joe Thuney (UFA)

Andrews and Thuney are both multi-year starters in New England and have been among the most reliable players on the team the last few seasons. While the former should certainly be a priority for the Patriots, retaining the latter will be difficult given his status as one of the NFL’s best guards as well as the Onwenu/Wynn factor. Ferentz, meanwhile, is an experienced backup capable of filling all three interior spots.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at free agent centers and guards — in case you are wondering the order is alphabetical and nothing else — New England might be interested in adding under the right conditions.

B.J. Finney

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Cincinnati Bengals/Seattle Seahawks

2020 statistics: 7 games (0 starts); 0 quarterback pressures given up

Finney had a strange year. He signed a two-year, $8 million contract in Seattle last spring, was traded to Cincinnati in October, spent time on the Coronavirus reserve and non-football injury list, did not play a single offensive snap all year, and eventually was released by the Bengals last week. Despite his recent journey, Finney has experience and the versatility to play all three interior positions — an ability the Patriots like in their backups. He also would come relatively cheap.

Ted Karras

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Miami Dolphins

2020 statistics: 16 games (16 starts); 11 quarterback pressures given up (2 sacks, 1 hits, 8 hurries)

Ted Karras is a long time Patriot, has played 70 games — including 21 as a starter — before leaving for Miami last spring, and knows the system as well as any player available in free agency this year. If New England is unable to retain David Andrews, going after Karras might be the team’s best course of action to ensure the stability of an interior offensive line that could also very well lose left guard Joe Thuney.

Would Karras be open to returning as a backup as well? That will likely be determined by his market and whether or not he gets offers to at least compete for a starting gig. The Patriots, however, would probably not be opposed to bringing him aboard as an experienced emergency option capable of starting at all three interior positions.

Tyler Larsen

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 30

2020 team: Carolina Panthers

2020 statistics: 13 games (0 starts); 0 quarterback pressures given up

Given that he has played just 36 offensive snaps the last two years, Tyler Larsen might be ready to move on from the Panthers after five seasons. In turn, New England might give him a call: he could serve as a versatile backup with starter-level experience, who could give the team some depth behind its three interior starters. Despite 18 career starts, Larsen will be cheap and could be able to fill James Ferentz’s former role as a do-it-all depth option.

Nick Martin

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: Houston Texans

2020 statistics: 16 games (16 starts); 23 quarterback pressures given up (1 sacks, 2 hits, 20 hurries)

The Texans parted ways with Martin earlier this offseason to get some salary cap relief, but before the move he was a fixture along their offensive line: the 27-year-old started 65 games over the last four years and was undisputed as Houston’s starting center.

If New England loses David Andrews, bringing the former second-round pick aboard might be a good move. Martin may have struggled in 2020, and might be more expensive than a player such as Ted Karras, but he might benefit from a change of scenery while continuing to play in a system similar to the one the Texans ran during his entire time there.

Justin McCray

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Atlanta Falcons

2020 statistics: 10 games (2 starts); 11 quarterback pressures given up (3 sacks, 2 hits, 6 hurries)

Justin McCray may be a journeyman — he spent time with four different NFL teams and two in the Arena Football League — but he does bring some starter experience and versatility to the table: he has played in 50 NFL games with 19 starts, and has seen time at four out of five positions along the offensive line (all but guard). If New England wants to bolster its guard depth behind projected 2021 starters Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason, McCray might be a cheap option worth considering.

Spencer Pulley

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 28

2020 team: New York Giants

2020 statistics: 0 games

The Giants did not give Spencer Pulley even a single snap in 2020, but he could have some value as a player with starting experience — he has 26 career starts on his résumé — and, again, versatility. He should not be considered a starting-caliber player at this point in his career, but could still fill a prominent role in New England: do-it-all backup. At the very least, he would give the Patriots some cheap competition in training camp.

Austin Reiter

Free agency status: Unrestricted free agent

Opening day age: 29

2020 team: Kansas City Chiefs

2020 statistics: 18 games (15 starts); 11 quarterback pressures given up (11 hurries)

If David Andrews leaves New England for greener pastures elsewhere, Austin Reiter might be worth a shot. While the Chiefs might try to retain him — he started 34 games for the team the last two seasons — their challenging salary cap situation might force them to waive goodbye to the veteran. In that case, the Patriots might give him a shot to insert some experience into their starting lineup; experience that might be needed in case both Andrews and Joe Thuney depart.

Patriots outlook

The aforementioned acquisition of Trent Brown gives New England some flexibility up front, and would allow the team to part ways with five-year starter Joe Thuney. 2020 starting right tackle Michael Onwenu could slide into the left guard spot without much of a problem — he was a guard in college — which in turn would leave only one major opening along the line: David Andrews’ old center position.

In case Thuney joins another club this offseason, retaining Andrews has to be a priority for the Patriots. If they fail to do that, some experienced replacement options would be available in free agency — none a better fit than Ted Karras given his previous stint in New England. Ideally, however, Andrews is kept aboard, which would shift the focus away from the starting lineup to the backup situation.

As can be seen, the veteran market offers some experience and versatility. That said, the best and most cost-effective way of approaching the interior offensive line if Andrews is retained might be via the draft: New England could spent some mid- or late-round fliers on interior O-linemen, while having cheap options such as James Ferentz, Marcus Martin, Najee Toran and Ross Reynolds offer additional competition.