The Patriots have one of the best offensive line situations in the league entering the 2020 season.
New England boasts a top-tier starting five with David Andrews back at center, one of the best guard tandems in football, and returners at both tackle positions to protect Jarrett Stidham.
And they’re deep too. After drafting five offensive linemen in the last two years, the Pats have solid backups and future starters on the roster developing behind their veterans, making up for a lack of experienced depth with upside.
In a time where reliable offensive line play is scarce around the league, the Patriots go nearly two deep at all five positions.
The only setback this offseason was the retirement of legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, which is a massive loss.
Scarnecchia’s fingerprints were all over the OL room from talent evaluation, game planning, in-game adjustments, and maybe most importantly, player development.
Scar is infamous for taking talented players and re-working their technique to get the most out of them with Shaq Mason serving as a recent example.
Mason was a fourth-round pick from a triple-option offense in college with minimal experience in traditional pass protection. Scarnecchia worked with the Pats right guard on his pass sets while perfecting his run blocking, and now Mason is one of the NFL’s highest-paid guards.
The Patriots have a sixth-rounder starting at right tackle (Cannon), a third-round pick at left guard (Thuney), and an undrafted center (Andrews) along with Mason, a testament to Scarnecchia’s ability to develop talent. Only starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn was selected in the top 75 picks of the draft.
Unfortunately, Scar won’t be there to work with young talents Yodny Cajuste, Hjalte Froholdt, and the trio of day three picks from April’s draft that would all benefit greatly from his guidance.
Instead, Cole Popovich and Carmen Bercilo will split offensive line coach duties after learning under Scarnecchia and will run the same system that Scar built over the last two decades that won a Super Bowl without him in 2014 during his first retirement.
New England is preparing for life without the 72-year-old Scarnecchia by spending the fifth-most cap dollars on offensive linemen this season and loading up in the trenches in the last three drafts.
Here are scouting reports on every offensive lineman currently on the Patriots’ roster with updates on a few of New England’s players returning from injury:
#Patriots film: great pass blocking by the left side of the Pats OL. Quinn got Wynn a few times early with the cross chop and speed off the edge, so Wynn adjusts to cut off the angle and let's Quinn come to him. Check out Thuney stone Michael Bennett on the T/T stunt as well. pic.twitter.com/TnC9OMWUMG
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) November 26, 2019
There’s no denying Wynn’s on-field talent as long as he stays healthy; the 2018 first-round pick only appeared in nine of a possible 36 games in his first two NFL seasons. Wynn’s success starts with his feet mirroring pass rushers and fitting onto blocks with tremendous precision. The Pats left tackle also has a strong upper-body and chest, helping him drop his anchor in pass protection and create movement as a run blocker. Wynn’s lack of ideal tackle size and length doesn’t hurt him much on tape, and the expectation is that he’ll stay at tackle, but there’s logic in moving him to guard eventually due to his body type. He’s one of the better young linemen in the game, and the Pats went from a 70.8 team pass-blocking grade to a 75.3 grade with Wynn in 2019 (h/t Louie Benjamin). For more on Wynn, read my deep-dive into his 2019 film here.
I randomly think about how flawlessly the #Patriots OL blocked one-back power on the clock-killing drive late in the Super Bowl once a week, maybe more. Cannon combo block with the double on Donald w/Shaq then climb to the LB, Andrews reaching Suh, Thuney pulling. It's beautiful. pic.twitter.com/yr6ENDRV41
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 25, 2019
The 32-year-old ranked 36th out of 81 tackles a year ago with a decent 70.7 Pro Football Focus grade, but he is steadily declining in every season since 2016. On the one hand, Cannon, who is a standout run-blocker with enough foot speed to mirror edge rushers, is still a starting-caliber right tackle. But on the other hand, he has two years remaining on his current deal with a cap hit of over $9.6 million in 2020, an expensive price tag for an aging player that’s showing signs of slowing down. Cannon dealt with a shoulder injury and an illness that might explain why he had his worst season since 2015 a year ago, and it makes sense for the Pats to count on him for another year as they develop a successor.
First thing that stands out with West Virginia OT Yodny Cajuste is his explosiveness off the ball and depth in his pass set. Look at how much further back he is than the rest of the OL. Allows him to easily cut off angles and remain patient to react. #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/pm5d30I3Pa
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) March 21, 2019
Speaking of potential successors, Cajuste has the talent to replace Cannon or even play on the left side, but also comes with medical red flags. The Patriots knew that Cajuste would redshirt as a rookie after quad surgery following his final collegiate season, but now the on-field work begins as he’ll be a full go for training camp. Cajuste has an ideal tackle frame, above-average foot speed, and excellent upper body and hand strength, which make him a great fit in New England’s power rushing attack. However, the Mountaineers offense used unique line splits and pass sets that will take some adjusting for Cajuste in the NFL. West Virginia thrived on a quick-strike passing game with predetermined decisions for the quarterback that saw the ball come out quickly, so Cajuste didn’t need to pass protect for long. He has the athletic profile to be a starter in the league, but he’ll benefit from a year of swing tackle duties as he gets used to sets at an NFL depth in pass protection.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 2, 2019
The Pats sent a sixth-round pick to the Cardinals to acquire Cunningham last August, but the former seventh-round pick only appeared in one game for New England in 2019. Cunningham never got to a point mentally where the Pats felt comfortable playing him over Marshall Newhouse, who replaced Wynn at left tackle because of his intelligence. Before the 2018 draft, Cunningham tested in the 96th percentile as the third-best offensive linemen at the combine from an athletic standpoint. He has plenty of foot speed and range to stick on an NFL roster, but based on his college tape, and six starts in Arizona, a lack of body control and core strength leads to struggles against powerful edge rushers. An offseason in New England’s system should catch Cunningham up mentally. But he needs to add strength to develop into more than a backup for the Patriots.
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) July 10, 2019
Andrews told the media that he has no significant limitations moving forward after doctors found blood clots in his lungs last summer, forcing him to sit out the entire 2019 season. Although veteran Ted Karras filled in well, the Pats missed Andrews’s leadership, toughness, and speed at center a year ago. Andrews brings a little nasty to the Pats offensive line that sets the tone for his teammates, and they never quite matched that intensity without him in the huddle last season. Andrews is also an athletic center that makes the unit faster with his blocks to the second level and on screens. Karras was bigger, but he didn’t reach tough landmarks with the same efficiency as Andrews.
On the lone TD drive of the game, the #Patriots had LG Joe Thuney block Aaron Donald 1v1 twice in key situations, and Thuney won both times. Thuney has tackle-like skills. Always balanced, great core strength, quick feet, knows how to use his arms/hands. Underrated player. pic.twitter.com/MQQaWpdZLj
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) February 7, 2019
Thuney is the second-most valuable returning player on the Pats offense behind only Julian Edelman, according to Pro Football Focus’s WAR metric, finishing as the fifth-best guard in the NFL in Pro Football Focus’s system. Thuney has started all 74 games, including playoffs, playing on 99.4 percent of snaps in his first four seasons. On top of durability, Thuney has only allowed one sack in the last two years and wasn’t called for a single penalty in 2019. His pass sets are teach tape for young guards with flawless posture, balance, mirroring skills, and a vastly improved anchor from early on in his career. He’s also an athletic blocker in space and generates enough movement with sound positioning as a run blocker. Due to his intangibles and skill, the Patriots and Thuney’s reps continue to negotiate a long-term extension. Currently, Thuney will play on a $14.6 million franchise tender in 2020, barring a trade, and the two sides have until July 15 to reach an agreement before he must play on the tag.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 29, 2019
The other half of the Patriots’ prolific guard tandem fought through an ankle injury in 2019. Mason’s explosiveness out of his stance and anchoring ability took a hit due to the injury, but he got healthier later in the year, finishing strong with an 86.2 overall grade in the Wild Card loss to the Titans. Mason’s run blocking is his calling card as he’s one of the most lethal pullers in football, a bull-dozer on double-team blocks, and athletic enough to make blocks at the second level or in space. He has also worked extremely hard to become an above-average pass protector, giving him the well-rounded skill set necessary to finish ninth among all guards in PFF grade in 2019. Mason wasn’t as dominant as his 2018 campaign last season, but he’s still worthy of the contract extension the Pats gave him.
This was interesting: #Ravens running zone read out of the pistol. Baltimore lined up new #Patriots OL Jermaine Eluemunor as a tight end on the right side. Defender tries to jump inside, and Eluemunor does a nice job of moving his feet to wall him off as the run hits his gap. pic.twitter.com/7WX9DOm8ba
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) August 29, 2019
The Pats swapped a fourth-round pick for a sixth and Eluemunor in a trade with the Ravens last summer. Speaking to the offensive line community, Eluemunor has tons of raw ability and versatility to play multiple spots, and his tape in Baltimore was solid. He’s a very stout blocker and has excellent athleticism for a big man, which has stood out to many coaches and trainers that have worked with him since college. But he arrived both in Baltimore and New England severely out of shape and didn’t see the field last year for the Pats because he couldn’t meet the standard play speed. Belichick sees something in him as the Patriots inked Eluemunor to an original-round tender this offseason to keep him in the fold for 2020. But his time in the league will run out quickly despite his talent if Eluemunor doesn’t improve his conditioning.
Fan of #Patriots IOL Hjalte Froholdt (left guard). Start with pass pro. Don't pay attention to the end result because none of that is Froholdt's fault. Traditional pass sets he has a sturdy, wide base with good feet and can anchor vs power. No problem staying in front of guys. pic.twitter.com/YVpvRIumXC
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 28, 2019
The team is still optimistic about Froholdt’s future despite a rough rookie training camp and preseason. The Danish Destroyer was one of the best pass-protecting guards in the SEC during his days at Arkansas with terrific foot speed and lateral agility to mirror push rushers almost like a tackle. However, he’s inexperienced coming over to the states from Denmark, and as a result, his technique is sloppy, leading to too many penalties. Froholdt is still learning how to control his large frame, but the athletic traits and smarts are there to blossom into a starter. Those within the organization believe he can be a viable replacement for Thuney if he walks after this year. Froholdt has some experience at center as well to back up all three interior spots.
The UCLA product has yet to appear in an NFL game in two seasons with the Niners and Patriots. Toran has a solid anchor with plenty of reps in pass protection as a starter at UCLA with Josh Rosen at quarterback. The big knock on him in college was hand placement and a waist-bending, which means he bends at the waist to generate power into his blocks rather than getting down with his ankles and knees to create leverage. Toran is likely battling for a practice squad spot.
New #Patriots guard Michael Onwenu currently weighs 344 pounds, played last year at 368. Big-time people-mover and hand power. Playing right guard here. Perfect combo block. Bumps the one-tech who Ruiz buries then fits to the LB at the second level to clear the way. pic.twitter.com/LnbgQk3xSU
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 25, 2020
Big Mike is currently at 344 pounds after dropping his playing weight to get a little quicker than he was playing at 380 pounds during his final year at Michigan. Onwenu is fun to watch since his eye-popping power at the point of attack makes for great highlights. He is smoother in space than you’d expect for such a large man, executing pulls and climbs to the second level with relative ease. But he’s at his best on double-teams and base blocks on the line of scrimmage where he generates all kinds of movement. Onwenu got beat in pass protection at times due to his lack of foot speed and change of direction abilities. But he has tremendous upside and is losing weight to become lighter on his feet in preparation for interior rushers at the pro level. Onwenu said on draft weekend that he’s practicing snapping the ball this offseason so he can serve as a backup center as well as his natural position at guard.
We'll see if #Patriots sixth-round pick Justin Herron can overcome size/play strength limitations. But his pass sets were usually clean playing left tackle. Athletic build and foot speed, decent posture, changes up punches. Can slide and mirror edge rusher. pic.twitter.com/SDzpSIFN9H
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 28, 2020
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Onwenu, the Pats listed Herron as a guard in the draft release, but the rookie played left tackle at Wake Forest. Herron was a reliable pass protector for the Demon Deacons with great initial depth out of his stance to slide and mirror edge rushers. He backed that explosiveness on tape up with a 33-inch vertical at the combine (93rd percentile). The question for Herron is, does he have enough functional strength to hold up against NFL power? He has a slight frame and got bullied at the point of attack at times, especially when he was asked to generate movement without help. Herron is built more like a guard at 6-4, 308 pounds, but his playing style suggests he’s better on the outside. There are no guarantees as a sixth-round selection, so he’ll need to add strength to his frame quickly to hold up inside. Still, Herron has the skill set that led to successful transitions from tackle to guard for others in the past.
#Patriots seventh-round pick Dustin Woodard fits their undersized, athletic center mold at 6-2, 291 pounds. Memphis runs a wide open zone running scheme. Asked to make a lot of blocks moving laterally. Reaches and turns out the 1Tech DT here. pic.twitter.com/vh7Xij0mZf
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 28, 2020
The final Pats draft choice in 2020 could be the future at the center position. Woodard comes in with almost an identical athletic profile to David Andrews as an undersized, athletic center prospect. According to Pro Football Focus, at 6-1, 295 pounds, Woodard graded out as the best run-blocking center in all of college football in 2019 with an elite 90.1 grade. The Memphis offense features a wide-open zone running game that’s bread and butter is outside zone. In outside zone, centers get up to linebackers or seal the backside to keep defenders from running down the ball carrier. Woodard isn’t a people mover, but he was an excellent positional blocker and consistently hit his landmarks on tape. The Patriots found Andrews as an undrafted free agent following the 2015 draft. Although it’s unfair to put those kinds of expectations on Woodard, he’s a very comparable player entering his rookie season.