Patriots Mailbag: Evaluating the State of the Offensive Line, 2021 OT Class Rankings

The Patriots might need to do some major reshuffling in the interior of their offensive line this offseason.

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Patriots fans understandably are clamoring for quarterbacks and offensive skill talent this offseason, but don’t sleep on their potential needs along the offensive line.

Although the assumption is the team will retain starting center David Andrews, there’s a good chance starting left guard Joe Thuney departs in free agency. Thuney should become the highest-paid guard in the NFL since he’s hitting the open market as an elite player at his position.

Thuney, who has never missed a start in five seasons, will leave a gaping hole in the interior of New England’s offensive line that will lead to some shuffling up front next season. 

The good news is that Belichick hit a home run with 2020 sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu. The Pats head coach said that the team initially viewed him as a guard prospect but didn’t rule out leaving Onwenu at right tackle, where he played the majority of his snaps as a rookie. 

Still, if Thuney walks, it makes the most sense to move Onwenu to left guard. Onwenu’s limited foot speed and ability to play in space hinder what the Patriots can do schematically with him at tackle. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels isn’t going to call many things on the perimeter to the right side with a 340-pound tackle. The Pats can amplify Onwenu’s best trait, power at the point of attack, by playing him at guard.

Onwenu is a solid tackle, but both the player and offense as a whole are better with him inside. 

The Patriots then need to fill a hole at right tackle while also contemplating the future of starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who has landed on injured reserve in each of his first three seasons. 

According to Pats captain Devin McCourty, longtime right tackle Marcus Cannon, a COVID opt-out, is expected to return next season. But I wouldn’t count on Cannon, who will need to take a pay cut to remain with the Patriots next season ($9.6M cap hit).

Another sixth-round pick from last year’s draft class, Justin Herron, is also an option at right tackle. However, I’d be more comfortable with Herron serving as the top backup.

Luckily for New England, the 2021 offensive tackle class is the best I’ve seen in my five years studying the NFL draft, with potentially nine tackles landing in my top 50.

Offensive Tackle Best Traits Worst Traits
1. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern Started 37 games (30 straight) at both OT spots (LT in 2019), explodes out of stance, ability to down block/reach block with balanced lateral movements, good radar and pacing to climb to second level, excellent foot speed for movement blocks, good pass pro posture and balance, very stout anchor and cut off ability in pass set, hand power and placement is refined, physical at POA and has enough juice, tough/tenecious blocker Doesn’t have ideal tackle length, used to quick setting without much vertical passing experience, not a true road-grader
2. Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech Three-year starter at left tackle, checks size/length/athleticism boxes, easily pulls and connects with moving targets, foot speed to make OZ blocks, always balanced when moving, good pass pro posture, usually reaches set points with ease, creates movement with power at POA, drops anchor consistently, solid punch power and accuracy with active hands, good IQ (started as true freshman) Susceptible to a soft edge vs speed, occassionaly bends at the waiste to recover in pass pro, can expose his chest at times as run blocker, sometimes stops feet at POA in pass set
3. Jalen Mayfield, Michigan Ideal tackle size (6-5/320), battle tested by 2019 guantlet, LT/RT flexibility, fantastic foot speed & agility, explosive out of his stance, uses multiple sets and has a strong/balanced base, lateral mobility to pull/reach for days, plenty of punch power and better accuracy in year two, nice hip flexibility to drop anchor and leverage, good power at POA and can really down block Only made 15 starts, needs to improve cutting off angles in pass sets, relatively raw and will need to become more consistent with technique (angles, hand placement), struggled vs tough 2019 slate (trial by fire)
4. Alex Leatherwood, Alabama Three-year starter w/final two at LT, massive and filled out frame, aggressive and powerful run blocker, made for a power/gap scheme, gains good initial ground out of kick slide to handle speed, fluid and balanced pass sets, stout anchor with ability to unlock hips to take on bull rushers, powerful punch/hands, high IQ player in pro-style system Stiff lower body leads to issues with change of direction, struggles with balance/posture getting nose over toes, hand placement needs shorter technique to strike, only adequate lateral movement, will sometimes lunge in pass pro
5. Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC Started games at both LT/LG, huge athletic upside w/balance and body control, very smooth/fluid kick slide and pass set footwork, drops anchor on bull rushers, excels in lateral movements and climbs to the second level, competitive/tough, fires into contact and shows good power at POA, good body positioning in run game, good IQ to ID stunts/blitzers, loves to finish/sustain every block Hand technique (outside hands too often), projects to play inside, more athletic prospect than power blocker, only started 19 games
6. Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame Tall/Long left tackle prospect (6-6), three-year starter, excellent power at POA for man/gap schemes, brick wall in pass pro, combo climb/doubles and down block machine, balanced/sound base in pass sets, improving timing/accuracy with hands with good power, adequate ability to drop anchor, excellent at creating leverage Not a lateral mover, lacks range in zone schemes, susceptible at times to speed-to-power rushers, might be power/gap scheme specific
7. Samuel Cosmi, Texas Started 34 games at OT (21 at LT, 14 at RT), tall/long/lean prospect (6-7), will continue to fill out/add muscle, climbs and connects with ease, solid lateral movement for outside runs and moving pockets, enough functional athleticism to clean up pass sets, has length and knows how to use, has the hand power when he connects, tough/competitive Needs to rework pass sets to gain ground with post foot and properly kick backwards instead of side shuffle, needs to improve hand technique (wide hands that show poor timing), functional athlete but technique is raw

The top six tackle prospects listed above are potential first-round targets, and there’s a very good chance the board will fall in a direction that leads to an elite tackle prospect falling to the Patriots at 15. Note: Penei Sewell will be gone by no. 15, and I would not take Texas’s Samuel Cosmi in the first round since I view him as more of a project than the others. 

Taking a tackle with needs at quarterback, receiver, and in the defensive front seven is mind-numbing for some, but winning in the trenches is key, and it’s an outstanding class. 

I’m higher on a tackle in the first round than most because good ones are hardly ever available in the veteran marketplace. It’s easy to find upgrades at wide receiver or tight end through trades or free agency, but not so much at tackle. The reason being that demand always outweighs supply at that position, and teams don’t let good tackles leave. When they do, they almost always sign record deals.

Although it’s not my first choice either, nor is it the only path for New England, the Patriots need to continue to restock the offensive line, and it’s a tremendous rookie class.

Now that we’ve evaluated the state of the offensive line, let’s get to your questions. Thanks again to all of those that asked some great questions this week:

This feels like the most likely group of veterans that the Patriots will pick from this offseason. None of them are great, and Wentz and Garoppolo are non-starters for me at their current cap hits. Fitz is the choice if they’re drafting a first-round QB a la the Dolphins with Tua. But if they’re looking to get an answer through the veteran market, I’d lean towards Carr. He was 11th in QBR and eighth in EPA+CPOE composite while leading the ninth-ranked passing offense by DVOA. Carr had a good supporting cast in Vegas and is sometimes conservative to a fault, but he threw more passes downfield into tight windows last season and won’t turn it over. The Patriots could win games with Carr, even be a playoff team, and then pounce on a more physically gifted quarterback when the opportunity presents itself. Think the Chiefs with Alex Smith. 

I wanted to elaborate on Wentz because I think he’ll be available. Along with the injuries and cap hit, my biggest worry with Wentz’s fit with the Patriots is that he was at his best playing out of structure. Former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was driven mad by Wentz freelancing and failing to operate within the scheme. Those broken plays are risky unless you’re Mahomes or Wilson. The Patriots need someone that will be a cog in the machine, and although he has some upside, Wentz doesn’t fit.

I’m higher on Mariota than most because he was an accurate passer within 20 yards, especially between the numbers, in his first four seasons. Accuracy and anticipation in the areas of the field where Mariota excels is a nice fit with the Pats. Plus, he gives you the mobile quarterback element, and most of his issues stemmed from waning confidence. However, it’s difficult to assess a fair trade, and it’s hard to imagine the Patriots would give up anything more than one of their compensatory picks. If Mariota is for sale, the price may get wild. Not Stafford wild, but higher than you’d expect. 

There isn’t much beyond the names listed. Bridgewater would be my pick out of this tier. Like Mariota, his accuracy and touch at the short and intermediate areas of the field were solid last season. But his current contract is way too hefty ($17.9M cap hit in 2021), and the Panthers might hang onto Bridgewater, so they don’t need to start a rookie right away. If he comes available at a discount, I’d take the flier if the Patriots don’t upgrade elsewhere. 

I think both are similar players that win inside with great technique against leverage and strength at the catch point. I lean towards Godwin because he’s younger and likely cheaper. It’s hard to imagine Belichick paying top-of-market for Robinson, and you have to think Robinson wants to play with a real QB at some point in his career (sorry, Trubisky). 

A little update on the cap projections, the league is now thinking the cap will be closer to $185 million, which would give the Patriots closer to $70 million in space. I believe that the top-tier free agents will still get paid, which is why I’m in favor of a higher cap, but we’ll see a slew of one-year deals amongst the lower tiers of free agency so those players can hit the open market once the league cap goes back to normal hopefully in 2022. The Patriots could scoop up several mid-tier free agents on short-term deals instead of giving the bag to a few top guys. Either way, they’re in a great spot. 

Getting to draft questions now, I continue to seek ways for the Patriots to add another first-round pick. The easiest way to do this is trading Stephon Gilmore to a team that needs help in the secondary, and although I love Gilmore, that’s something they should entertain. The Patriots have plenty of holes to fill, and this is a good class to have two first-rounders. They could make some serious headway by adding another top 50 selection. Maybe that lands them a top pass-catcher and quarterback.

Good question. Parsons was named in a lawsuit for allegedly hazing an underclassman on the Penn State football team. The allegations are serious and go well beyond the typical “carry my shoulder pads” stuff. Still, I don’t see it removing Parsons from New England’s board. Parsons would be a home run pick if he’s there at 15.

The doomsday scenario for the Patriots. How do you choose between Pitts and Waddle (the others listed aren’t on their level)? If they’re both still on the board, the Pats got a good player, but I also don’t envy Belichick for having to make that choice. I have Pitts as the best offensive skill player in the draft, so I lean in that direction, but the three-level speed that Waddle presents is enticing. They haven’t had a player like Waddle before. 

It’s a fair question. My answer is that it likely takes them out of the lower tier tight ends for at least another year, but Pitts is an elite prospect that changes the complexion of your entire offense. If he’s still on the board, you have to take him regardless of how the team feels about Asiasi or Keene. Friermuth is in the instant-upgrade conversation as well, and I’d still take him despite the two 2020 third-rounders on tight ends. Guys like Hunter Long, Brevin Jordan, and other day two-three prospects are in the same boat as Asiasi and Keene.

Tyler Shelvin (LSU) and Marvin Wilson (Florida State) on day two seem like great fits that will be on New England’s radar. Two powerful nose tackles with some fluidity to occasionally win with some finesse. I’m not super into overpaying a defensive lineman in free agency, but someone like Solomon Thomas fits as a failed first-rounder that has tons of versatility to rush from multiple spots. Those are the types of moves they’ve made in the past. 

Other than specialists, the only position I’d rule out in the first round for New England is running back. I think Najee Harris would be an upgrade on their current backs. But the value of first-round running backs combined with the fact that Damien Harris might be even better than we hoped and is lighting a fire under Sony Michel makes the idea of taking a running back early laughable. 

https://twitter.com/glock_roach/status/1357333809298083840?s=20

During an appearance on Tom Curran’s podcast, Patriots captain Devin McCourty said he expects Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, and Brandon Bolden to return next season. Hightower’s return would be a massive development for the Pats defense, while the others could have a tougher time making an impact. 

I still see Williams as mainly an outside corner with some matchup value against receiving tight ends. Unless his attitude and technique improve, I don’t think Williams has the mentality to be a full-time player in the box. He has the size but wasn’t physical enough to be involved in run fits as often as he would be in that tight end stopper role. He looks much more comfortable when he’s playing corner. 

Yes, I think speed and athleticism will be a major emphasis in their acquisitions this offseason, and it better be on offense. The Patriots need to get faster at the skill positions and fail to take advantage of the way the game is played nowadays. There are no excuses anymore for them rolling out one of the slowest groups of wideouts in the NFL. 

I don’t think Belichick is close to retiring, and I think it’s impossible to say who will be next in line when that time comes. We will be looking at a much different Patriots coaching staff with at least Jerod Mayo moving on to a larger role elsewhere before Belichick hangs them up. Maybe McDaniels handles the day-to-day with Belichick in an advisor role, but that’s far from a guarantee for McDaniels.