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 Justin Herron.
Name: Justin Herron
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 75
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-4, 310 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? Herron joined the NFL as a sixth-round draft selection by the Patriots in 2020, arriving during one of the most unusual offseasons in league history. Despite the Coronavirus impacting the entire league and severely limiting opportunities for rookies during the offseason and summer, Herron still appeared in twelve games in his first season as a pro. He therefore enters 2021 with some level of experience, even though it pales in comparison to the six years he spent at Wake Forest.
While he was forced to take two redshirt seasons — one as a true freshman in 2014, the other due to a torn ACL suffered seven minutes into his 2018 campaign — Herron still appeared in a combined 51 games for the Demon Deacons. The team’s top option at left tackle since 2015, he finished his college career with a school-record 51 starts and was named third-team All-ACC twice (2017, 2019). Furthermore, he showed some constant improvement as a pass blocker and was named team captain in 2019.
What did his 2020 season look like? Herron had to see 194 other players come off the board in the 2020 draft before finally hearing his name called. When he did, he joined a Patriots offensive tackle position that appeared set at the starting positions with some solid developmental backup options also already under contract. Things tend to change quickly in the NFL, however, and by season’s end Herron effectively served as a starter for a unit that saw considerable personnel turnover following his arrival in April.
Herron, who did not enjoy the benefits of a traditional offseason or preseason due to the league’s Covid-19 restrictions, started the season as a fourth option at offensive tackle. Even with Marcus Cannon having opted out, starters Isaiah Wynn and Jermaine Eluemunor as well as fellow sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu were ahead of him on the depth chart. In Week 3, however, Herron saw his first in-game action. One week later, he started at right tackle against the reigning world champions in Kansas City.
Herron continued to see rotational action on both the left and the right side before being sent to injured reserve because of an ankle injury suffered in late October. When he returned a month later, Herron again served in a reserve capacity before starting New England’s final four games of the season: with Wynn now on injured reserve himself, the Patriots turned to the rookie to fill the vacant starting gig on the left side. In total, he therefore ended the 2020 season with six starts and twelve total in-game appearances.
Herron was on the field for a combined 352 of 1,011 possible offensive snaps (34.8%) during his first year in New England as well as 31 more in the kicking game (of 399; 7.8%). While he performed admirably given the challenging circumstances he faced throughout the season, the youngster also ranked second on the team behind only Eluemunor with 15 quarterback disruptions given up: Herron surrendered 4 sacks as well as 2 hits and 9 additional hurries. He was similarly inconsistent as a run blocker.
What is his projected role? Even though the Patriots initially announced Herron as a guard when his draft pick was made official last spring, he was used exclusively at the tackle position in 2020 — a role he is expected to continue to play heading into his sophomore season as well. While not projected as a starter with both Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown set to fill those roles, he has value and experience as a third/swing option behind the two veterans.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots like to employ their offensive linemen in the kicking game as well, and Herron was no exception during the 2020 season. After being on the field for 31 snaps in such a capacity last year, he should see regular action as a member of New England’s protection teams on both field goal and extra point attempts again in his second season with the club. Any role that goes beyond this usage should not be expected to be in the cards for him, however.
Does he have positional versatility? While he started his career in football on the defensive side of the ball back in high school, Herron’s versatility appears limited to the two offensive tackle spots as well as the in-line tight end spot occasionally filled by a sixth offensive lineman. The Patriots could decide to train him at guard as well to give them more flexibility up front, but any move in that direction is only theoretical in nature at the moment. Right now, the 25-year-old projects as a swing tackle and sixth blocker in select situations.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the second-year of his rookie contract, Herron is currently counting only $43,117 against the Patriots’ salary cap: with his deal not qualifying for Top-51 status during the offseason, only his fully-guaranteed signing bonus proration is on the team’s books at the moment. Once Herron makes the 53-man roster, however, his $780,000 base salary will be added to the equation for a combined cap number of $823,117.
What is his roster outlook? Herron may not be in the same category as other offensive linemen when it comes to “roster lock” status, but he appears to be in a very good position. The Patriots have given him starter-level reps in practice and he is the clear frontrunner to earn the third/swing position at this point in the process. Anything but him making the team would be a major surprise based on his early camp performance in relation to the other backup offensive tackles under contract.