The first three weeks of free agency left the New England Patriots’ offensive line with some pretty big questions. While the team was able to retain right tackle Trent Brown on a two-year contract, both starting guards from a year ago left the organization.
Left guard Ted Karras signed a deal with the Cincinnati Bengals as an unrestricted free agent, while right guard Shaq Mason was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for a fifth-round draft choice. The expectation is that one of the vacant spots — most likely Mason’s — will be filled by third-year man Michael Onwenu, but the other one remains virtually unoccupied at the moment.
There are some in-house candidates to fill that vacancy, including veteran James Ferentz, but the expectation is that the Patriots will turn to the draft to bolster the depth at the position and find a suitable starting option. Luckily for them, they are among the best teams in football when it comes to doing just that.
A recent analysis conducted by Pro Football Focus’ Timo Riske shows that New England is near the top of the league over the last eight drafts in successfully adding offensive linemen:
The Patriots have invested 16 combined draft picks in their offensive line over this eight-year period. While they have had some notable misses such as 2017 third-round selection Antonio Garcia, their track record as a whole is impressive and the reason for New England’s solid ranking in a league-wide comparison.
The Patriots have been able to accomplish that not by investing high draft pick after high draft pick, but rather by finding diamonds in the rough. Between 2014 and 2021, only one lineman — starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn — was selected within the first two rounds.
Meanwhile, the team hit the jackpot repeatedly in the middle rounds. Among the players falling into that category are long-time starting guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney: selected in 2015 and 2016, respectively, the two started a combined 202 games for the team, including two Super Bowl wins. Mason was selected in the fourth round, Thuney joined the team in the third one offseason later.
Outside of center David Andrews, who was added as a rookie free agent in 2015, Mason and Thuney are the Patriots’ biggest success stories as far as drafting O-linemen is concerned. They are not the only players worth mentioning, however.
Bryan Stork (2014/4th) was a two-year starter and helped New England win a Super Bowl. Cameron Fleming (2014/4th) was a valuable swing tackle. Ted Karras (2016/6th) started a combined 35 games at center and guard. Michael Onwenu (2020/6th) is projected to take over a starting role after showing plenty of promise in his first two years. Justin Herron (2020/6th) is the Patriots’ current number three at offensive tackle behind Wynn and Brown.
While they did not (yet) reach the same levels of consistent performance of Mason or Thuney, all of them played some quality football for the organization throughout the years. Most importantly, they are concrete examples of the Patriots having a knack for finding capable offensive linemen even without investing premium draft capital.
As far as the 2022 draft is concerned, it seems like a safe bet that New England will pick at least one lineman. But even if said player is not added in the first or second round, him taking over a starting role as a rookie would not be a surprise.
How successful that hypothetical player will be, however, remains to be seen. While the supporting cast will be an experienced one, there are plenty of questions still. How will the player adapt to the NFL? How will those surrounding him adapt to his presence and play? How will the coaching situation — New England lost both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and line coach Carmen Bricillo in the offseason — impact the development?
As with all things NFL Draft, time will tell. That said, the Patriots should be expected to go back to the offensive line well later this month. And as the graph above shows, they will more likely than not come away with a solid addition.