With training camp underway, the New England Patriots are fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we are taking a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins.
Name: Jerald Hawkins
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: TBA
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6-foot-6, 305 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? After a three-year stint at LSU that saw him start at both left and right tackle, Hawkins decided to take his talents to the NFL and enter the 2016 draft instead of returning to school for his senior campaign. He was indeed selected, coming off the board 123rd overall in the fourth round. Now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hawkins spent the first three years of his career with the club but appeared in only five games: he missed all of the 2016 and 2018 seasons on injured reserve.
In 2019, Pittsburgh eventually decided to trade Hawkins and a seventh-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a sixth-round selection. He played one games with the organization before joining the Houston Texans and eventually returning to Pittsburgh again. Hawkins did add 13 more games to his résumé during the 2020 campaign, but he was not brought back by the Steelers in free agency. Instead, he remained unsigned until New England picked him up earlier this week.
What did his 2020 season look like? After playing only three snaps as a member of the Buccaneers, the club decided against retaining Hawkins as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Instead, he remained on the open market for almost five months before signing his next contract: Hawkins joined the Texans on a one-year deal in mid-August. He was unable to make the club’s 53-man roster out of training camp, but he was signed to the practice squad after his release on cutdown day.
Hawkins spent only 10 days on Houston’s developmental roster before another opportunity presented itself. With the Steelers having lost starting right tackle Zach Banner to a season-ending ACL injury, they decided to bring their former fourth-round draft pick back into the fold as an additional layer of depth: Pittsburgh poached Hawkins off the Texans’ practice squad to add him to its 53-man roster. With the exception of two separate stints on the Coronavirus reserve list he spent the remainder of the 2020 season there.
In between, Hawkins appeared in 13 games. Being used primarily as a sixth offensive lineman, he was on the field for a combined 76 out of 1,100 possible snaps (6.9%) during the regular season, and two more (of 90; 2.2%) during the Steelers’ wild card playoff loss. The fifth-year man also saw some action on special teams in 2020, but his role was that of a rotational reserve both on offense and in the kicking game. That said, from a purely statistical perspective the season was the best of his career.
What is his projected role? Ever since entering the league back in 2016, Hawkins has served as a backup offensive tackle — a role that is not expected to change following his arrival in New England. The Patriots, after all, are well set atop the depth chart: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown are projected as the starting duo on the left and right side of the line, respectively, leaving Hawkins to compete for the third/swing role behind them.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Hawkins saw some special teams opportunities in 2020. Those were far and few in between, however, with him playing just five combined snaps as a protector on field goal and extra point kicks. Heading into his stint with the Patriots, he should not be expected to do significantly more work than that in the game’s third phase. Hawkins is still an offensive tackle, after all, and his size and athletic profile prohibits him from being used in any other capacity.
Does he have positional versatility? The Steelers used Hawkins quite a bit outside of his listed position in 2020: the vast majority of his snaps — 66 (84.6%) — came with him aligned as an in-line tight end. The goal was not for him to catch the football, though, but to offer additional beef up front. Still, he has shown some solid versatility in the past: besides serving as a sixth lineman, the 28-year-old also has also moved between the left and right tackle positions during his career.
What is his salary cap situation? While the final numbers of his contract are not yet available, the expectation is that Hawkins will not play for much more than the veteran’s minimum on a one-year deal. If that is indeed the case, he would earn $990,000 even though it is entirely possible that part of it is classified as a benefit that would not count against New England’s salary cap. Either way, Hawkins should not be on the books right now to begin with: it is unlikely his contract cracks the Top-51 offseason list.
What is his roster outlook? Hawkins does bring some experience to the Patriots’ offensive tackle position, but it seems unlikely he will be able to beat out his competition for the third or fourth spots on the roster. That said, he could become a valuable addition nonetheless: depth is always needed, especially considering the injury histories of both Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown. Hawkins could therefore still have a way onto the roster or practice squad, even though Korey Cunningham, William Sherman, Yodny Cajuste and especially Justin Herron should be seen as the favorites at the moment.