After a five-year span of relative stability, the New England Patriots’ interior offensive line saw a major change in 2021. Long-time starter and perennial iron man Joe Thuney left the team in free agency, creating a massive hole at the left guard position. Luckily for the Patriots, they were well-equipped to fill it.
Second-year man Michael Onwenu, after all, played some impressive football during his rookie campaign the previous year; he started the season in Thuney’s old spot and again looked good. However, he was eventually moved to right tackle — the position he played in 2020 — and finally to the bench. In his place, Ted Karras took over at left guard.
Heading towards this year’s free agency period, additional change might be on the menu: Karras is an unrestricted free agent, while Onwenu might get his chance to be reinserted into the lineup. At the moment, he projects as a starter yet again:
- David Andrews
- Shaq Mason
- Michael Onwenu
- William Sherman
- Arlington Hambright
- Drew Desjarlais
- Yasir Durant*
With David Andrews and Shaq Mason entrenched into the starting roles at center and right guard, respectively, New England is in some good shape. The left guard spot, however, remains a question mark: Will Onwenu be used to fill it again? Will Karras be re-signed after all?
Even more worrisome is the depth behind the top-three or top-four, depending on Karras’ status. William Sherman, Arlington Hambright, Drew Desjarlais and Yasir Durant do not inspire plenty of confidence to step into the starting lineup without a major drop-off. Trying to keep the lone free agent therefore appears to be the best course of action:
- Ted Karras: Unrestricted free agent | Free agency profile
Karras started the 2021 season as a backup but was elevated to the starting lineup in Week 5. He never looked back, ending the season with 11 straight starts at the left guard spot and an offensive playing time share of 76.6 percent.
If Karras is retained in free agency, the Patriots’ overall depth up front looks significantly better: no matter who takes the starting gig, the depth would look a lot better with Andrews, Mason, Karras and Onwenu as the top four. In case Karras leaves, however, adding at least one more outside option might be a good idea.
So, who would be available in free agency at a projected reasonable cost (which eliminates high-end starters such as Brandon Scherff or Ryan Jensen from the equation)? Let’s find out.
Oday Aboushi (UFA): A career journeyman, Aboushi has spent time with seven different teams over the course of his nine seasons in the NFL. Along the way, he started 47 games — including five as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. However, a torn ACL ended his season prematurely.
A.J. Cann (UFA): A seven-year starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cann too ended 2021 on injured reserve: he injured his MCL after starting the first four games of the season. The 30-year-old might be looking for a starting gig in free agency, but he might have to settle for backup duty given his age and injury status.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (UFA): Duvernay-Tardif was traded from Kansas City to New York last November and ended up starting seven games for the Jets. He too comes with considerable starting experience but will likely not command top dollar.
Dan Feeney (UFA): Despite only being in the league since 2017, Feeney has started 64 games already — most of them with the Chargers. Last year in New York, however, he spent the majority of the season as a backup. At age 27, the former third-round draft pick might be worth taking a look at, though. Plus, his combination of mustache and mullet nothing short of elite.
Max Garcia (UFA): A seven-year veteran with 53 career starts on his résumé, Garcia has “veteran backup option” written all over him. He is no starter-level player at this point in his career, but could very well fill in if need be. His 2021 season in Arizona is proof of that.
Chris Reed (UFA): Over the course of his seven years in the league, Reed has appeared in 61 games but he started only 29 of them. Nonetheless, he has looked good when on the field — especially last season with the Indianapolis Colts. He may not be a starter, but his combination of experience and versatility might make him an interesting target for a backup role up front.
Michael Schofield (UFA): Schofield’s ability to play both guard and tackle is intriguing, and would make him a welcome addition to a New England team looking for positional flexibility up front. The question is whether or not he would be open to a backup role even at age 31: Schofield has started 83 games over the course of his career, and continues to play at a fairly high level.
Xavier Su’a-Filo (UFA): Su’a-Filo’s stint in Cincinnati was marked by injuries, but he has shown that he can play at a high level in the past. The 31-year-old might be looking for another starting opportunity, but he should probably be open to serve as a backup as well.
What the Patriots will do along their interior offensive line is anyone’s guess, mainly because of Michael Onwenu. New England could use him at both left guard and right tackle — two positions with starters currently headed for unrestricted free agency — which creates an unclear situation heading into free agency.
If the team uses Onwenu to fill one of those spots, the other will need to be filled either by a re-signee (Ted Karras or Trent Brown) or by bringing another option in from the outside. Trent Brown is the better player of the two, but he will likely also need a bigger investment from the team. Nonetheless, the projection is that Brown will be kept which in turn would a) free up Onwenu to compete for the left guard spot, and b) limit the need at the starter level.
As a result, bringing in lower-cost backup options like the ones listed above would make sense from the Patriots’ perspective.