Joe Thuney

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering the draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding said talent. We'll start things off with what is currently the team's greatest area of need: Offensive tackle.

HOW THEY PERFORMED
Considering the Patriots lost one of the best right tackles in football to injury, the performance at this spot has to be considered a rousing success. Back in August, when backup tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming were having a hell of a time in West Virginia trying to slow down the array of Texans pass-rushers thrown their way, it looked like this group might cripple the Patriots if anything were to happen to Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon. Instead, it ended up being one of the team's deepest positional groups. Solder led the group. After an up-and-down first half, he was stout following the team's bye week. In 11 games after the break, including playoffs - after getting more aggressive with his punch, according to o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia - he allowed just one sack and five quarterback hits. Cannon played in seven of the team's first eight games and was sidelined for the season when he aggravated an ankle injury he'd been dealing with for much of the season. Waddle performed admirably in Cannon's absence, taking on talented pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, Von Miller of the Broncos and Khalil Mack of the Raiders and not allowing a sack in that stretch. When Waddle got hurt, Fleming stepped in and was more than serviceable. He started seven games, including two of three playoff games, and allowed three total sacks. Despite going against two of the game's best fronts in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, neither Jacksonville nor Philadelphia could take advantage of New England's third right tackle. The Patriots needed depth at that spot for the second time in three years - 2015 was a mess at tackle due to injuries, and the Patriots were forced to use center Bryan Stork there briefly - and they had plenty this time around. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018
Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks.

WHO ISN'T
Nate Solder, Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED
It's about as dire as it gets -- a 10 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay memorial "How concerned are you?!?" scale. If the Patriots aren't able to bring back one or more of their impending free agents this offseason, one of their deepest positions will suddenly become one of their greatest liabilities. Solder hadn't yet made any decisions about his future by the end of the season, meaning there's no guarantee he'll return. It's written into his contract that he can't be given the franchise tag so the Patriots will have to figure out a new deal with the soon-to-be 30-year-old if they want him. Fleming and Waddle could try to turn their fill-in performances this season into new contracts elsewhere in what will be a relatively weak free-agent tackle market. Cannon should be back to full health for the start of the 2018 season and he'll be a lock to start the season at right tackle, but it's the left side that could be an issue. The Patriots have three young tackles in-house in Garcia, Jelks and Croston, but it's unclear exactly how ready any of them will be to take on the massive responsibilities that come with protecting Tom Brady's blind side. Garcia missed his entire rookie season due to illness and lost a significant amount of weight - and he came into the league already relatively light. Jelks, an undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, stayed on the non-football injury list this year and hasn't played since 2014 due to season-ending knee injuries in 2015 and 2016. Croston is a promising player headed into his second year - the Patriots protected him on the roster all season even though they knew he was buried on the depth chart -- but he's unproven. There are myriad question marks here. If the Patriots can't bring back Solder on a new deal, finding a left tackle capable of handling the job would probably shoot to the top of their offseason to-do list. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?
Not much. The most established tackles hitting free agency, outside of Solder, rank as some of the worst in football, per Pro Football Focus. Greg Robinson (graded as PFF's No. 66 tackle), Chris Clark (No. 77) and Donald Stephenson (No. 51) aren't necessarily names that scream "plug and play!" There are other swing tackles and career backups available, but if the Patriots are forced to look for Solder's replacement, it probably won't be on the free-agent market. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
The options seem to be better here, although rolling with a rookie tackle at the premier position of left tackle would be a sizable risk. Three tackles are commonly referred to by draft experts as first-round options: Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Texas' Connor Williams and Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey. Ohio State's Jamarco Jones, Oregon's Tyrell Crosby and Western Michigan's Okorafor Chukwuma have potential and could probably be had in later rounds, but they'll probably need more polish.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
The best way for the Patriots to address the situation would be by re-signing Solder. He could argue he's worth around $13 million per year (about what Russell Okung received when he signed a four-year deal at 29), and perhaps the Patriots would be willing to go there on a shorter-term deal depending on Solder's career plans. Otherwise, the Patriots could re-sign Waddle and/or Fleming and try Cannon on the left side. In that scenario, the Patriots may be hurting two positions while trying to fix one, but it still may be their next best option. If they're having a hard time coming up with answers, maybe the Patriots could try left guard Joe Thuney at tackle -- he played there in college -- but his length and his track record the past two years would suggest he should stay on the inside. Finally, if Garcia or Croston is ready to take on a bigger role, the Patriots could try either at tackle. Garcia is a very good athlete, but he'll need to get much stronger - especially after his illness - to play on the left side. Because the best tackle prospects in the draft will likely be off the board before the Patriots pick at the end of the first round, getting Solder back seems to be the most logical way to go about making sure the left side of New England's offensive line is secured for 2018. 

Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

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Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told Patriots.com this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action. 

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Offensive linemen the unsung heroes of Patriots' recent success

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Offensive linemen the unsung heroes of Patriots' recent success

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sometimes you just know when you’ve hit the right note with Bill Belichick.

It happened on a conference call Tuesday. I asked him about a simple play, but a big one in Sunday’s game at Denver. The Patriots were facing a second-and-11 from their own 24 midway through the third quarter. The Broncos had just scored a touchdown, cutting the Patriots' lead to 27-16, and Sports Authority Field at Mile High was hopping. The Pats went with a single back, Dion Lewis, lined up seven yards behind quarterback Tom Brady. Brandon Cooks was wide left, and to Brady’s right Rob Gronkowski was in a three-point stance next to right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, Martellus Bennett flexed a couple of yards wider and Philip Dorsett at the edge of the formation but still within shouting distance. 

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Brady took the snap and quickly faked a handoff to Lewis. Bennett delayed his release before lazily heading down the seam while Dorsett hurriedly ran a 7-route. Cooks’ job was simple. Get up the field as fast as possible and pull the cornerback with him. Gronkowski was given a free release and jumped past both linebackers and the safety, entering a huge void in the Denver defense. But it was left guard Joe Thuney who made the play, pulling across the formation to stop Von Miller dead in his tracks, giving Brady just enough time to hit the wide open Gronk for 26 yards. A handful of plays later, the Pats scored a touchdown and put the Broncos to bed.

“Yeah, that play that you’re referring to was a play that, obviously, has a hard run-action with a puller and a fake to the back,” said Belichick when I asked. “A lot of times the defensive end or the outside linebacker will kind of freeze for a second there while he has to figure out is it a run? (EDITOR'S NOTE: that’s exactly what happened.) Then it’s a pass and then the guard is kind of on him and he has to restart his pass rush, so that’s a play we’ve used in the past.”

The idea is to give Miller -- or another rush first player -- a different look with protection and plant a seed for later. Of course it’s easier said then done, especially against a player of Miller’s ability.

“[It's] a tough block for the guard, as you said, to come across the formation and have to pass block on an outside rusher that he’s not usually used to blocking the majority of the game," said Belichick. "It’s been the type of play that you can gain a little bit of an advantage on the defense, but there’s also some degree of difficulty and margin for error because it’s a play that’s probably a once-a-game block for an offensive lineman.

"Joe did a good job on that play. It was good ball handling and faking I think caused Miller to slow down a little bit and hesitate and that gave Joe a chance to get on him.”

Thuney is an unheralded player along that front line, rarely highlighted because most people don’t pay attention to what happens on the interior offensive line. But the youngster out of North Carolina State has been coming along quite nicely and drew praise from Belichick. 

“Joe did a good job in the game,” he said. “He was singled up quite a bit in the protection. He gave us a solid performance.”

That’s high praise in Belichick-speak, damn near glowing when you think about it. But it wasn’t reserved solely for Thuney. While the Pats have gotten improved play from the tackles, the interior of that offensive line has been sound as a pound, despite their youth. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. They have played a big role in the Pats becoming a more balanced football team and -- in these eyes -- a better offense over this win streak.

“Yeah, they have. You’re right,” said Belichick. “On the one hand they’re young. On the other hand they’ve played a lot of games and they’ve played a lot of games together and they’ve had a lot of practices together. The communication, the footwork, the technique, just kind of seeing things the same way with those guys has really been good. Dante [Scarnecchia], of course, has always done a great job with that group. Those three players in particular, two guys in their third year, one guy in his second year just have worked together and have improved individually and improved as a unit in their combination blocks, which there are so many of those on the offensive line. Their ability to handle twists, and blitzes, and stunts and things like that, they are hard to do but those guys do a good job. They work well together.”

Of course, Belichick is Belichick; he added, “I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement.” But he’s right. Because of their youth, this trio hasn’t yet reached their prime, though Shaq Mason is awfully close, developing into one of the better players at that positon. Mason is someone Scarnecchia said of recently, “He’s good and he’s gotten better from last year.” 

The man in the middle, David Andrews, is undersized but his quickness is very beneficial, especially with the way the Pats like to have their linemen get out in front of play-action passes (like the one Thuney did) or on screens to either the running backs or wide receivers. Plus, Andrews’ intelligence and work ethic are off the charts. That was highlighted by the fact that the undrafted second-year pro was named one of the team’s captains. While susceptible to power rushes, his technique has gone a long way toward overcoming some of those physical limitations, especially during this five-game win streak. 

Then there’s Thuney, who quietly goes about his business, relying on his athleticism, quickness and improved technique as well. Plus he’s cut back on the penalties that plagued him as a rookie a season ago. 

“I’m getting smarter in my old age,” Thuney joked.

So is this coaching staff. They’ve gained more and more trust in this group, and it’s shaped the way offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is calling games and the way the Pats are playing them, although Belichick says don’t get too carried away.

“Well, I think it helps the play calling,” he noted. “I mean, there’s certainly advantages to being balanced, but in the end the most important thing is being able to move the ball and score points. If we have to do one thing more than another, we feel like that’s a better way to move the ball and score points, then I think that’s what we’ll do and that’ll be the priority. In the end, we’re trying to score points. We need points to win, so however we get those, we get them. Whatever we feel like our best opportunities are, that’s what we want to try and do.”

But after 41 points in Denver, and the trust to put Thuney in the position they did on the 26-yarder to Gronk, shows there’s been a shift in approach. And you can’t argue with the results.

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