Today we’re on to one of the most important positions on the roster, the guys who keep #12 safe and open up all those holes in the running game — the offensive line.
After losing Nate Solder in 2015, it was clear how vital the veteran left tackle was to the offense. His return to health in 2016, coupled with the return of Dante Scarnecchia as well as great luck injury-wise, gave the Pats some of their best play upfront in recent memory.
Marcus Cannon emerged from the depths of his 2015 season to have the best year of his career. It was one of the most unexpected turnarounds from an oft-maligned player.
The highest graded lineman at each position from the AFC last year pic.twitter.com/BXLBn4j0oD
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 7, 2017
The interior of the line has a great young core, with David Andrews, Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Thuney stepped into the starting LG spot and was a stalwart ala Logan Mankins in 2005. That trio should only get better as they enter their second season together.
Reinforcements arrived this offseason as well, with Tony Garcia, perhaps the future at left tackle, drafted in the third round. The team also added Conor McDermott, an athletic tackle in the sixth round and a pair of undrafted rookie tackles.
An extension for Nate Solder could still be possible, but more likely is that his replacement will be groomed this season. The team has thrown enough at the wall that someone should emerge, with Garcia likely stepping into the backup swing role that should get him onto the field early.
The only other question is the interior depth where rookie Ted Karras was solid in spot duty as a rookie. He won’t be handed the job this year and will face plenty of competition for his roster spot this summer.
Let’s break down the entire line.
Nate Solder – If there was any doubt how much the Patriots missed Solder after he tore his biceps early in the 2015 season, his solid 2016 season solidified his importance. The Patriots just didn’t have the depth to replace their big, athletic left tackle, but Solder bounced back and locked down Brady’s blindside like he never left. Now Solder enters the final year of his contract and could be entering a crossroads with the team. He still remains one of the best left tackles in the game and letting him walk would be no easy decision. This is a big season for him, one that could earn him a lot of money next offseason.
Marcus Cannon – After being every Patriots’ fan’s player to hate for much of 2015, Cannon turned in the best season of his career in 2016, coming into camp in great shape and solidifying the right tackle position. There’s no other way to put it, Cannon was outstanding in 2016 and it should be little surprise that coincided with the return of one of his biggest fans, Dante Scarnecchia. His strong season earned him a five-year extension in November, firmly supplanting Cannon as the right tackle for the foreseeable future in New England.
Only four offensive tackles were more efficient in pass protection on 3rd down than Marcus Cannon in 2016. pic.twitter.com/KzXhJj7jYe
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 21, 2017
Cameron Fleming – Fleming was elevated to the top swing backup after Sebastian Vollmer never made it off the PUP list and ended up starting five games, including one at left tackle. Fleming always seemed better suited for the right side, but held up well in one appearance replacing Nate Solder. But nothing will be handed to Fleming this season, with two athletic tackles drafted and two more added as rookie free agents, the battle for the third and perhaps fourth tackle spots will be intense.
LaAdrian Waddle – Waddle appeared in just two games in 2016. I expected he’d be the top left tackle backup but he was surpassed by Cameron Fleming. That doesn’t bode well for Waddle’s future with the influx of youth.
Antonio Garcia – Garcia was taken in the third round out of Troy and might be the heir apparent at left tackle. He’s got a bad attitude and great athleticism, two of the biggest keys for Patriots’ offensive linemen. He also held up extremely well against the best competition and was unable to recall the last time he gave up a sack. Garcia could be in line for a similar rookie year to Nate Solder, serving as the swing back up and injury fill-in to groom him to take over for Solder in 2018. He’s an important player to watch.
Conor McDermott – The Patriots double dipped on tackles in the draft, taking McDermott in the 6th round. A former tight end, he’s very athletic but scouts worry if he’ll be able to handle NFL power. He’ll get the best coaching in the business and after a year with Scarnecchia and in the weight program he could be ready to contribute in 2018 after a season on the practice squad.
Max Rich – An undrafted tackle out of Harvard, Rich has NFL size at 6’7” and was a two-time all Ivy League selection. With the influx of youth at the tackle spot, including two rookie draft picks, Rich will have a tough climb ahead of him.
Cole Croston – An undrafted rookie out of Iowa, Croston has the size and length for the NFL, but might have to slide inside as he struggles with power. Of course he’s gotten great coaching at Iowa and with some uncertainty along the interior depth spots, he could have an outside chance at a roster spot.
Andrew Jelks – An undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, Jelks had terrible injury luck, twice tearing the same ACL and missing his last two seasons after starting every game at left tackle as a sophomore. He refuses to give up and if he can stay healthy he might just be a diamond in the rough. But again, it’s a log jam for young tackles this season, but he’ll get every opportunity to compete.
Joe Thuney – As a rookie in 2016, Thuney stepped into the starting left guard spot early last offseason and never relinquished it. He certainly had his share of rookie moments, but overall it would be hard to ask for much more than what he gave the offense. Thuney has outstanding athleticism and plays with great leverage, getting low to the ground and handling defenders with more size. With a full offseason in the weight program and a chance to catch his breath after a jam-packed rookie year, he should be ready to build on the solid Super Bowl-winning performance he turned in last season.
Shaq Mason – Most of us weren’t sure what we had with Mason as a rookie in 2015. He showed promise and great athleticism, but was undersized and had his struggles in the passing game. But in 2016 Mason took a big step forward, turning in some outstanding run blocks in space while continuing to improve his pass protection. He seems like a Belichick favorite and the Patriots lack of movement in free agency and the draft along the interior of the line likely signals they’re ready to rock with the Thuney-Andrew-Mason trio inside again.
Ted Karras – Karras made one start after being taken in the sixth round of the 2016 draft. He might not challenge for a starting role, but with limited interior depth he should have the inside track on the top backup role, especially if he’s progressed over the offseason.
Chase Farris – Farris started out 2016 as an undrafted rookie with the Lions before getting released and added to the Patriots’ practice squad. A college right tackle out of Ohio State he could push for a backup role.
Jamil Douglas – A 2014 fourth-round pick by the Dolphins, Douglas joined the Patriots in mid-2016. He did start six games as a rookie so perhaps there is potential there.
James Ferentz – Son of Belchick coaching tree member Kirk, Ferentz is a backup center entering his fourth season in the NFL with stints in Houston and Denver.
Jason King – An undrafted rookie out of Purdue, King was a four-year starter for the Boilermakers and an All Big Ten honorable mention. He’s one of those undrafted rookies with a real chance to compete for a roster spot as the guard depth remains questionable.
David Andrews – Andrews made the roster in 2015 as an undrafted rookie and started 11 games. After defeating Bryan Stork in the preseason center competition Andrews went on to start all 16 games in 2016 and solidify the position for the immediate future. He earned an extension this offseason, locking him with the team thru 2020. That kind of continuity should reap rewards as the young interior continue to gain experience together.