Patriots Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line

The Patriots will need to replace a pillar of their coaching staff in retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

672
0
SHARE

How does Patriots head coach Bill Belichick replace the best position coach in NFL history?

Although Belichick won a Super Bowl once before without Dante Scarnecchia, the legendary offensive line coach is walking away again at an inopportune time for his former team. 

Scarnecchia, 72, gave more than enough to the Patriots organization, but his impact from player development, game-planning, and in-game adjustments will be sorely missed in a challenging season. 

The future Hall of Fame coach will be the first to tell you that repetition and continuity are the keys to having a great offensive line, and the Pats, like many teams, have question marks. 

In only 14 padded practices before Week 1, a fraction of the time they’d usually have to drill fundamentals and techniques, the Patriots will need to replace starting right tackle Marcus Cannon and develop five draft picks on the offensive line in the last two seasons without Scar. 

Scarnecchia is known for turning underdeveloped and unheralded lineman into stars, which he did with Cannon (sixth-round pick), starting right guard Shaq Mason (fourth-round pick), starting left guard Joe Thuney (third-round pick), and starting center David Andrews (undrafted).

Instead, Belichick is putting his faith in two coaches, Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo, to take the reins and develop an offensive line with at least one new starter. 

The good news is that four-fifths of the Patriots’ offensive line is returning starters, and their interior trio is as good as any in the league. Plus, Popovich and Bricillo worked with Scarnecchia before he retired.

Popovich enters his sixth season with the Patriots, where he served as Scarnecchia’s assistant and worked with the running backs to get a different perspective last season. 

Since joining the team in 2015, Popovich’s responsibilities were to handle the initial on-boarding process for rookies and newcomers by teaching them the basics of the playbook in New England. 

As for Bricillo, he joined the Patriots a year ago after nine seasons as the offensive line coach at Youngstown State, where he successfully served under Belichick confidante Bo Pelini. 

The Patriots are in good hands with Popovich and Bricillo, but we’ll keep a close eye on the development of first-and-second-year players on the roster without Scarnecchia’s magic. 

PLAYER REPORTS 

OFFENSIVE TACKLES 

Isaiah Wynn 

Out of anyone on the Patriots’ roster, Wynn is my top candidate to make the leap in his third season. Granted, he has to stay healthy, but early returns on his first extended NFL action were positive, and most of his errors were mental. Wynn’s footwork, balance, and lateral mobility in pass protection make up for his smaller stature at left tackle, and he’s already fantastic at sniffing out twisting (or stunting) defensive linemen in schemed pressures. As a run blocker, he has excellent tempo and footwork to fit his blocks with a strong upper body to drive defenders off the ball. In what was essentially his rookie season, Wynn had a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 97.0, 28th out of 85 qualified tackles. He should only improve with more starts under his belt. 

Yodny Cajuste 

The Patriots drafted Cajuste with the future in mind. New England knew Cajuste would likely redshirt his rookie season, which he did due to offseason quad surgery, and were planning on him starting down the road. Well, the future is now, as Cajuste, who has no NFL experience to date, could be thrust into a starting role in essentially his rookie season with Cannon sitting out the year. Cajuste is a smooth athlete that allowed only 25 quarterback pressures in his final two seasons at West Virginia. He has good initial explosiveness off the ball, nimble feet and solid lateral slides to get to his set points. But it’s his upper body strength and power that really stand out. At the 2019 combine, Cajuste put up 32 reps on the bench press (92nd percentile), and that weight room strength translates to the field. His hands are like cinder blocks capable of punching guys out of his frame, redirecting them away from quarterbacks, and moving defenders as a run blocker. Along with health and inexperience question marks, Cajuste is in for a bit of a learning curve after playing in an air raid system in college. In an air raid, linemen take wider splits, and the ball comes out quickly, so there aren’t as many traditional pass sets. Cajuste will need to get used to setting to depth in a five or seven-step drop for the quarterback. 

Korey Cunningham 

The Patriots traded a sixth-round pick for Cunningham but decided to roll with veteran Marshall Newhouse instead when Wynn got hurt. Cunningham is a great athlete, testing in the 96th percentile at the 2018 combine, but his balance and body control led to struggles in pass protection during his stint as a starter in Arizona. As a former tight end, the Pats tackle can move and showed adequate power to push defenders off the ball, but it’s telling that Scarnecchia went with Newhouse over him last season. Scar’s reasoning was that Newhouse had a better grasp of the playbook due to his experience in the league, so maybe Cunningham factors in at the position after learning the ropes for a year. If he can’t provide depth as the third tackle, and the Patriots still don’t feel comfortable with him starting, it might be time to look for other options. 

INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN 

Joe Thuney

One of the more surprising moves of the offseason was when the Patriots placed a one-year, $14.8 million franchise tag on their starting left guard. However, a nuanced take on the situation provides more clarity. For starters, Thuney exemplifies everything Belichick looks for in a football player; durability, consistency, and elite-level talent. Since the Patriots drafted him in 2016, Thuney has only missed 34 snaps in four seasons, starting all 74 games, including playoffs, and has developed into one of the league’s best guards. Over the last two seasons, Thuney has allowed only one sack in pass protection with the third-highest pass-blocking efficiency and pass-protection grade among all offensive linemen. Thuney’s pass sets are flawless with terrific posture, footwork, lateral slides, hand usage, and improved anchoring from early on in his career. He’s also a capable run blocker and an outstanding lead blocker on screen passes. The Pats have a lot of resources invested in interior offensive linemen, but Thuney is a homegrown talent that is a terrific leader and a tremendous player.

David Andrews

In an offseason of key departures, Andrews’s return from a scary blood-clot issue that cost him the 2019 season was a bright spot. The Pats center is a tone-setter on the offensive line, playing with a little nasty and fantastic consistency, never dipping below a 67.0 PFF grade as a starter. Although he filled in admirably, backup center Ted Karras had an uphill battle to replace Andrews, who was a top ten player at his position in 2018. In 2018, Andrews was seventh in blown block rate while Karras finished 27th among starting centers in 2019, according to Football Outsiders. The Pats’ short-yardage running game also took a hit without Andrews in the middle of the line. With a new quarterback under center and no Scar, Andrews’s leadership both on and off the field will be massive for New England. 

Shaq Mason 

The narrative surrounding Shaq Mason is that he took a significant step back after a stellar season in 2018. Although Mason wasn’t as dominant as he was two seasons ago, the talk of some massive drop off was overblown. As is often the case with offensive linemen, a slow start and a few blown blocks wrote the entire narrative for Mason’s 2019 season. In reality, Mason was slowed by a nagging ankle injury while dealing with a backup center and a similarly hobbled right tackle. As the season progressed, Mason rounded into form and finished the year tenth among guards in Pro Football Focus grade. He’s still one of the most dominant run blockers in the league, punishing defenders as a puller and double-teamer, and cleaned up his pass sets to finish with only two sacks allowed in pass protection. Although the Pats are spending a lot to keep the group together, they have the best interior trio in the NFL. 

Jermaine Eluemunor 

The Patriots traded back 78 spots in the 2020 draft to add Eluemunor last August, but the former Ravens draft pick rode the bench the entire season. Eluemunor has a lot of skill and versatility, playing both tackle and guard in Baltimore, but his conditioning continues to be the main issue. Patriots linemen are held to a certain standard of play speed and endurance that Eluemnor could never match, even with extra work on the hills. He’s got a strong chest that’s difficult to penetrate with decent lateral mobility to protect his edges. Many offensive line coaches and experts will tell you that Eluemunor has tons of raw ability. Unless he reshapes his body, though, he might not last in New England for much longer. 

Hjalte Froholdt 

The fourth-round pick out of Arkansas via Denmark was a fun study in the draft process. Froholdt was a high-level pass protector for the Razorbacks that was the highest-graded SEC offensive linemen in pass protection in last year’s class. Froholdt has tackle-like skills with impressive lateral movements to mirror interior rushers and enough power to keep defensive linemen away from his quarterback. However, his limited background in American football was the main reason he struggled in his rookie training camp. Froholdt’s technique is sloppy, and as a result, he gets wild with his hands and starts committing penalties. The Patriots want to clean up that technique to let Froholdt’s athletic gifts shine. He’s still in the development stages, but the tools are there to become a starter down the road. Patience is key with this one. 

Michael Onwenu (rookie)

There are fun offensive line tapes, and there’s what Onwenu did destroying souls at Michigan last season. Onwenu is a bulldozer, a road grader, and a mountain of a man who told me that after the draft he was getting down to 345 pounds as he transitions to the NFL. There’s punishing pull blocks, base blocks, and combination blocks on his tape, where Onwenu shows some impressive flexibility and foot speed for a man of his size. But at that size, he did struggle to move laterally with quicker interior rushers who could attack his edges and get around him. To combat that, Onwenu is dropping weight. He was a steal in the sixth round. We’ll see if he can hold up in pass protection enough to let him eat some pancakes in the running game.

Justin Herron (rookie)

Herron will likely make the transition inside from college tackle to pro guard where he’s a better fit from an athletic profile standpoint. As a starting left tackle for Wake Forest, Herron received an 84.2 pass-blocking grade in 2019, flashing a great initial kick out of his stance and impressive lateral slides to stay inside of edge rushers. However, play strength is a significant concern, as Herron got bull-rushed and didn’t get much movement as a run blocker, making the switch to guard a bit perplexing. With New England’s tackle depth taking a hit, maybe Herron gets a shot outside before the team moves him inside. He has the athletic ability and pass-protection skill to make an NFL roster, but he’ll need to add weight and mass to his frame to hold up against NFL power rushers. We’ll monitor how he does in that regard during camp. 

Dustin Woodard (rookie)

The last of the day-three picks for the Pats on the offensive line, Woodard has a challenging summer ahead to make an immediate impression as a seventh-round pick. The former University of Memphis center was the number two graded center in all of college football last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Woodard has a similar athletic profile to Pats starter David Andrews as an undersized but athletic player in the middle of the line. Memphis’s scheme asked him to reach blocks on the line of scrimmage outside of his frame in their outside zone rushing attack, and he has the foot speed and lateral mobility to make those challenging blocks. As a pass protector, Woodard generally looks for help and makes the best of his services when left uncovered. Due to his size and somewhat questionable play strength, Woodard fell in the draft, but it’s easy to see comparisons to Andrews, who went undrafted.