In an ideal world, a team only needs its backup offensive tackle in a select few situations each game. He will enter the game on short yardage or goal line plays, and be a part of the field goal and extra point protection units. Other than that, he will sit on the bench and provide depth behind the starters that will never be needed.
Of course, the NFL is not an ideal world and the backup offensive tackle position has become immensely important. Just ask the New England Patriots, who saw their projected starters miss considerable time during the 2020 season: while right tackle Marcus Cannon opted out, left tackle Isaiah Wynn missed the final six games of the year after suffering a knee injury in Week 11. Accordingly, the backups were called into action.
Heading into 2021, the starters again appear to be set in stone. Wynn will return as New England’s left tackle, with offseason trade acquisition Trent Brown set to fill Cannon’s old spot after he himself was sent to the Houston Texans via trade. The spots behind them are pretty important as well, however, and they appear to be wide open with training camp set to be kicked off soon.
OT Justin Herron, OT Yodny Cajuste, OT/G Korey Cunningham, OT/G William Sherman, OT/G R.J. Prince
With Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown as the starting tackles, five players are currently projected to compete for the third and fourth spots on the roster behind them. Among them, Justin Herron appears to be the favorite after filling a similar role in 2020 and playing a combined 351 offensive snaps between the left and the right side of the formation.
As for the others, they bring different levels of draft pedigree and experience to the table. Yodny Cajuste was a third-round pick just two years ago, but he has yet to play in an NFL game after missing both the 2019 and the 2020 seasons due to injury; Korey Cunningham is also entering his third year in the system but he has strictly been an emergency option since arriving in New England via trade; William Sherman is a sixth-round rookie; R.J. Prince is in his fourth season in the NFL but has no in-game experience outside of preseason.
The deciding factors
Technique: From footwork to hand usage to leverage, offensive tackle is a highly technical position. Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo, who both studied under long-time Patriots O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia, put a premium on players having sound fundamentals and using them consistently. Whoever fails to do this or does not show proper progress will not have much of a future in New England.
Athleticism and playing strength: You can have a spotless technique, but if you lack an adequate athletic skillset — quickness, coordination, strength — as an offensive tackle in today’s NFL you will have a hard time. Not all depth tackles on New England’s current team are as impressive as third-year man Yodny Cajuste in this area, but they need to show enough upside to warrant keeping around as developmental swing or emergency options.
Availability: Obviously, availability is important at every position. As the old saying goes, you can’t make the club from the tub. However, the offensive line is a unit built on stability and chemistry, and missing considerable time during training camp due to injury can quickly lead to a player falling behind in the race for a roster spot. Just ask the aforementioned Cajuste, who missed each of the last two seasons due to injury.
Awareness: Defenders do not just use brute strength to win their matchups, teams oftentimes rely on scheme to get them free in both the passing and the running game. Offensive tackles, therefore, need to be able to read what is happening in front of them and react accordingly no matter if they are blocking for the pass or the run. On top of it all, they also need to be aware of their own positioning on the field and how deep they move back or forward in their sets or blocking lanes.
Versatility: The Patriots usually keep only eight offensive linemen on their roster, so versatility may be a trump card for those competing in camp. Korey Cunningham, R.J. Prince and rookie William Sherman all have experience playing tackle and guard; Justin Herron is capable of lining up on both sides of the formation (something Yodny Cajuste also should be at this point in his career). All of them can also be employed on special teams, to serve as protectors on field goal and extra point kicks.
Communication: The offensive line needs to operate as a unit which means that the five (or sometimes more) players on the field need to have a common understanding of concepts and defensive looks. For the offensive tackles this means being able to get on the same page as the guards: Michael Onwenu and Shaq Mason are impressive players, but the line as a whole can only be as good as the chemistry between its parts allows it to be.
As noted above, Justin Herron has to be seen as the clear favorite to earn the third offensive tackle position on the roster this year. He appeared in 12 games last season, and was the starter in half of them — including the Patriots’ final four games of the season. If he shows some proper development in his second season with the team, he should earn the swing position behind Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown.
When it comes to the fourth tackle spot, on the other hand, the race appears to be wide open. Yodny Cajuste is the most intriguing athlete of the group, but his inability to get onto the field the last two years is a concern. That said, he still can very much earn that OT4 gig if he can fend off the others — a task he could very well manage to accomplish: William Sherman lacks NFL-level experience, while Korey Cunningham and R.J. Prince have shown little since entering the league.
Cajuste appears to be in a do-or-die situation heading into his third year as a pro, but the roster itself has been built in his favor. Now, all he has to do is stay healthy and take advantage.