The New England Patriots have undergone significant change this offseason.
J.C. Jackson is gone, signing a big money deal with the Los Angeles Chargers early in free agency. Former starting guards Ted Karras and Shaq Mason have found new homes, leaving the team searching for a replacement for one, if not both. The offensive coaching staff is finalized according to head coach Bill Belichick, after seeing the addition of two former head coaches in Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
So, there is no doubt that the Patriots have some big questions left unanswered, but a smaller question that still needs to be answered revolves around New England’s tackles. Isaiah Wynn will become a free agent at the end of the 2022 season and Trent Brown will follow him back into free agency following the 2023 season. Within the next 12 months Bill Belichick will need to add one, maybe two, starting tackles.
We know they like to take the “year too early rather than a year too late” approach when it comes to tackles, so let’s do that ourselves. Here is a 2022 offensive tackle who has the talent to be a starter, but may need a year for that potential to materialize.
Name: Nick Zakelj
Position: Offensive Tackle
School: Fordham (RS-Senior)
Opening day age: 24
2021 stats: 12 games, First Team All-Patriot League
Size: 6’6”, 316lbs
Expected round: 4th
2022 #Patriots Draft Target Thread— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) April 1, 2022
OT Nick Zakelj#Fordham
(6’6” - 316lbs)
A product of FCS football, Zakelj could be a low rent option for New England at tackle. pic.twitter.com/qYzaLMudu7
Strengths: Sizeable and athletic, Nick Zakelj fits the blueprint of a modern day NFL tackle. As a pass protector, his reactive athleticism jumps off the page as it allows him to play off of the movements of his opponents. He’s able to do that due to a combination of strong ankle flexion and a consistent base.
Zakelj shows some great recovery athleticism. He’s got an ok anchor but he knows when to give in and re-establish himself. pic.twitter.com/TM3JSYb8nn— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) April 1, 2022
As a run blocker, Zakelj seems to relish in the fact that he gets to show off a mean streak. As nasty as they come, he locks on to his opponent and will lean on them until they submit. His hands are best described as pesty, it seems to be impossible to detach him from you once he gets control. Sure, he holds sometimes but so does everyone else. In addition to the hands, his ability to get down the line on pulls and wipe people out is hilarious. He’s like a bulldozer.
A product of the Senior Bowl, Zakelj spent his week in Mobile working at both guard and tackle. He’ll be drafted in the hopes that he can develop into a starting tackle but there’s certainly some positional flexibility there. pic.twitter.com/nOIsl7ZZlu— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) April 1, 2022
Weaknesses: His strengths are a bit risky to bank off of. There will always be a talented rusher on the other side of him, and he is the classic example of a tackle that is susceptible to counter moves. Getting better with hand fighting is something that coaching can fix. Truthfully it’s just a matter of adding tricks to your repertoire. If he does that he’ll be ok, if he doesn’t things could get ugly.
For as flexible as his ankles are, Zakelj doesn’t show much bend in his knees. He’s got an upright stance that opens him up for leverage based losses on pass sets. One final thing of note is a tendency to lean. That’s fine if you’re able to lock on an opponent, but the Aaron Donald’s and Cameron Jordan’s of the world will make you look foolish if you try to do that to them.
What would be his role? If you take an offensive lineman within the first four rounds there is a hope that they could eventually become a starter. Zakelj falls into the category of a guy that you could essentially redshirt in his first year before allowing him an opportunity at a starting role. Think Yodny Cajuste but without the medical setbacks. New England hoped for him to take a big step in year two and that didn’t happen. Perhaps with a different background but similar potential, it could work with Zakelj.
Does he have positional versatility? All 45 of Nick Zakelj’s college starts came at tackle. If we’re projecting him to the next level, it’s safe to say that he’d probably be most comfortable on the outside. That’s not to say that he can’t try his hand at guard though. Like almost every offensive lineman at the Senior Bowl, Zakelj tried something new, sliding in to play guard and looking good in limited action during the week. In the year 2022, almost all tackle prospects have guard flexibility, it’s just a question as to how comfortable a team would be with moving them.
Who’s his competition? New England has a lot more at tackle than many people think. Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn are both back to start, with Justin Herron, Yodny Cajuste, and Yasir Dursant all serving as options to earn a bigger role next year. It’s a full room, and will become especially full if New England finds Isaiah Wynn worthy of an extension..
Why the Patriots? There are a number of players on New England’s roster that seem to be maxed out in terms of potential. Herron is a swing tackle who can fill in from time to time. Cajuste is a back end of the roster player who was a healthy scratch for most of his first full season. Yasir Durant can play guard or tackle but does neither particularly well. Nick Zakelj has the potential to raise the ceiling of this offensive line unit more than any other player listed.
He also fits the mold of what New England traditionally looks for in its tackles.
Zakelj jumps off the page as a #Patriots specific fit. Here is how he stacks up compared to the average tackle drafted by Belichick since 2000. pic.twitter.com/o1bLLfpPYj— Keagan Stiefel (@KeaganStiefel) April 1, 2022
Why not the Patriots? What’s the worst case scenario for New England in 2022? They struggle to find another guard and role into the season with a replacement level starter at the position? That doesn’t sound so bad.
Verdict: You could literally take a punter in the fourth round and I’d find a way to be optimistic. If you ever get upset about a fourth round draft pick, it’s time to reevaluate things.