Even before his first ever NFL game, New England Patriots center Dustin Woodard decided to call it a career. The seventh-round selection announced his retirement last August, not even four months after arriving in New England as the 230th overall pick in the draft.
Just like his initial career as a pro, however, his retirement was also not a long-standing affair: Woodard was reinstated to the Patriots’ active roster on Wednesday, meaning that he has decided to come out of retirement to once again compete for a spot on New England’s team heading into the 2021 season.
What the 23-year-old will bring to the table after his one-year absence is anybody’s guess, but based on his college career at Memphis we can try to determine what his return means for the Patriots and their interior offensive line.
What is his projected role? When the Patriots first drafted Woodard last year, they added him to an interior offensive line that was set at the top but had open spots behind the starter level. This year’s situation is a bit different: with Michael Onwenu, David Andrews and Shaq Mason projected to fill the starting roles along the interior O-line, and with experienced backup Ted Karras also being brought back in free agency, New England already has four roster locks under contract. Woodard is therefore expected to only compete for another depth spot alongside Karras.
What is his special teams value? With the exception of Andrews, the Patriots usually like to employ their offensive linemen in the kicking game as well. Woodard does not project to be an exception during his rookie season: if he is able to make the team’s 53-man roster and later game day squads, he should receive regular special teams snaps as a member of New England’s protection units on both field goal and extra point attempts.
Does he have positional versatility? Woodard brings considerable experience at all three interior offensive line positions to the table from his time at the University of Memphis, and therefore projects to be used in a similar fashion at the next level: he started 14 games each at center and right guard as well as 24 additional contests at left guard. His size — he was measured at 6-foot-1, 295 pounds last year — will prohibit him from also being trained at tackle, but his versatility is still at a high level.
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? When Woodard announced his retirement, the Patriots still kept his rights under the four-year rookie deal he was at. As a result, he was able to return to the team even after sitting out his first year in the league. But while he is no longer a rookie, the fact that he has no credited season on his NFL résumé means that he will be playing on a minimum salary deal. For the 2021 season, this means that he will play on a salary and salary cap number of $660,000. This number does not count against New England’s cap at the moment, though, considering that his deal is not among the team’s 51 most cap-heavy contracts.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Woodard brings some upside and versatility to the table, but that does not mean the Patriots won’t bring in some additional competition along the interior offensive line via the draft. He was, after all, a Day Three selection last year for a reason.
What is his roster outlook? Woodard returns to the Patriots with the same basic outlook as last year. While he has all the makings of a versatile interior backup, he is far from a lock to make New England’s 53-man roster. He is facing some tough competition to earn a limited number of roster spots behind Onwenu, Andrews, Mason and Karras. His developmental upside is a plus, but he will have to prove himself against Marcus Martin, Ross Reynolds and Najee Toran. If he fails to stand out against this group of players and any potential draft day additions, Woodard may have to aim at a practice squad spot.