Few if any units on the New England Patriots’ roster were hit as hard by free agency week as the offensive line. Not only did the Patriots lose left guard Ted Karras to a three-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, they also decided to trade right guard Shaq Mason to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just a day later.
With Karras and Mason gone, the Patriots’ interior O-line projects as a major question mark heading into the draft. Sure, center David Andrews is still around. And yes, promising third-year man Michael Onwenu is expected to take one of the vacant starting spots.
As a whole, however, the group will look a lot different moving forward, and it has yet to show that it can duplicate the success of years past. One area in particular stands out in that regard: pass protection.
The Patriots invested the 15th overall selection in last year’s draft in Mac Jones, after all, and will need him to show proper development both in 2022 and beyond to live up to the “franchise QB” label bestowed upon him during his impressive rookie campaign. Playing behind a makeshift offensive line, or one struggling to consistently keep him clean, does not appear to be a recipe for success in that regard.
Luckily for the Patriots, they still project to have one of the better units in the NFL when it comes to pass blocking. Projections by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic consistently put the group among the top 10 in the league in this area (primarily as either the seventh or eighth best).
The following graphic by Sebastian Carl illustrates one of those projections:
The projections themselves are based on a player’s past performance in pass protection, and therefore very much just that: projections. Offensive line play, after all, is hard to properly quantify given the various factors involved.
New England’s projections, just like all the others, therefore have to be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, they do show that the Patriots have a solid foundation in place to work with.
That foundation, for the purpose of Baldwin’s projections, looks as follows:
- LT Isaiah Wynn
- LG Michael Onwenu
- C David Andrews
- RG James Ferentz
- RT Trent Brown
Three of the five positions are set in stone: Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown will be the starting tackles in 2022, with David Andrews lining up at center. The guard spots, however, are very much still subject to change.
What this change will look like remains to be seen, but it would not be a surprise to see Michael Onwenu eventually move into Shaq Mason’s old spot at right guard; Onwenu played the position in college and appears to be best suited to take over for Mason. That would leave the left guard spot unoccupied.
James Ferentz will likely not fill it, despite starting two games at the position in 2021. However, Ferentz has never been much more than an emergency player — a serviceable one, but an emergency player still — and should not be expected to suddenly take a massive leap.
In fact, his presence in the lineup hurts the Patriots’ projections above. Whereas Wynn, Onwenu, Andrews and Brown are projected in a favorable light, Ferentz is not. If one player among the five listed above will be replaced, it is him.
The question is how the team will do it. In-house options such as William Sherman, Arlington Hambright or Drew Desjarlais might be the answer, but it more likely than not will come through the draft — a road New England has traveled before.
In 2016, the team invested a third-round selection in N.C. State offensive lineman Joe Thuney. A tackle/guard hybrid, Thuney earned the starting spot at left guard right away and over the next five seasons helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls while developing into one of the most reliable interior linemen in all of football.
Finding another Thuney will be hard even in the early rounds, but a rookie will have the advantage of playing within a relatively established structure: Wynn, Andrews, Onwenu and Brown have a combined 227 starts under their belt, with no player among them having started fewer than 24 games.
That experience plus the projected foundation in terms of pass protection should help New England field a competent line yet again in 2022. Even with Ted Karras and Shaq Mason no longer part of the equation, the Patriots offense has the potential to be fine as far as protecting Mac Jones is concerned.