Few if any position groups on the New England Patriots’ roster performed on as high a level in 2021 as the offensive line. Despite the group playing on a high level in both pass protection and run blocking, however, the Patriots have entered a rebuilding process up front.
Left guard Ted Karras left the team in free agency to sign a three-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. One day later, right guard Shaq Mason was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick. While third-year man Michael Onwenu will likely take over one of the starting spots — the expectation is that he will succeed Mason at right guard — the other is virtually unoccupied at the moment.
So, unless the Patriots want to head into the season with James Ferentz as the frontrunner to earn the starting gig, something has to change. Luckily for the Patriots, the draft features plenty of starter-level guards.
One of them spent the final three years of his college career just 17 miles from Gillette Stadium.
Name: Zion Johnson
School: Boston College (RS-Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2021 season: 12 games; 6 quarterback pressures allowed (1 sack, 2 hits, 3 hurries)
Size: 6025, 312 lbs, 34 arm, 82 3/8 wingspan, 10 5/8 hand
Expected round: Late 1st
Strengths: Measuring at just under 6-foot-3 and 312 pounds with long arms and big hands, Johnson has the baseline size to hold his own against NFL-caliber defensive linemen. He combines it with some tremendous lateral movement skills and some quick feet; Johnson has a solid anchor as well as the lower-body flexibility to mirror pass rushers without overextending or getting out of position. Getting past him is hard work.
Technically speaking, Johnson is at a very high level already. His hand placement in particular top-notch as well, and he knows how to move defenders out of their pass-rushing lanes.
At this point, it would be surprising if @BCFootball C/G Zion Johnson (@_ZJ77) isn’t the first interior OL off the board in April. Why? Simple, it’s his stopping power. It just doesn’t get better than this strong inside hand:#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/qS4TH1P3Wb— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 28, 2022
Johnson also is good at reaching the second level in the running game and identifying his targets when on the move. He is very fluid in his lower half, which allows him to find success both in zone and man-blocking schemes. He has also been described as a quick learner and very coachable player.
Johnson also is a very durable and experienced player: he did not miss any of his 58 college games between his stints at Davidson (2017-18) and Boston College (2019-21). At B.C. he was voted a team captain in each of his final two years.
Weaknesses: Johnson has a sturdy base, but his upper body could use some more strength to allow him to consistently win against NFL competition. At the moment, his reliance on his lower half leads to him leaning into his competition rather than delivering straight blows. Quicker players may be able to exploit this and cause some balance issues at the point of attack.
What would be his role? Johnson is a Day 1 starting guard at the NFL level, with the versatility and experience to serve as an emergency tackle as well if need be. In New England, he would likely take over the left guard position previously held by Ted Karras.
Does he have positional versatility? While he will have a set position at the next level, Johnson does have the versatility to play multiple spots along the offensive line. He projects as a left guard, but has started games at both tackle spots as well during his career at Davidson and Boston College. He furthermore spent some time at the Senior Bowl working on his center skills.
Boston College OL Zion Johnson, the top graded guard in the draft, staying after @seniorbowl practice working on his center skills. This is what NFL scouts are looking for.#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ #BestoftheBest pic.twitter.com/d5j1YiH3in— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 2, 2022
Who is his competition? Not counting Michael Onwenu, who can be locked into one starting role, the Patriots currently have James Ferentz, William Sherman, Arlington Hambright, Drew Desjarlais and Yasir Durant as the candidates to fill the other. Johnson leapfrogging them immediately to take over as a starter has to be expected. His roster spot in general would be save due to his status as a first-rounder.
Why the Patriots? With quarterback Mac Jones entering his crucial second season in the NFL, surrounding him with the most talent possible is paramount. Right now, that is not the case: the hole at guard is a worrisome one. Johnson would be able to fill it from Day 1, and serve as a long-term solution at the position.
Why not the Patriots? New England has shown that it can turn lower-drafted players into contributors along the offensive line, and there are other intriguing candidates available in this draft as well. The drop-off at other positions such as cornerback or defensive tackle is more drastic than it is at guard.
Verdict: Unless the draft falls in an unfavorable way, the Patriots drafting Johnson with the 21st overall selection does not appear to be the best-case scenario from the team’s perspective. Obviously, though, it all depends on how the board develops. And if Johnson is the best-rated player available at the point New England picks — either at 21 or following a trade-down — he would offer the team a pro-ready player capable of starting right away.