Shaq Mason

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's 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 to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are completely set . . . we think: interior offensive line. 


HOW THEY PERFORMED: It wasn't always pretty, particularly at the outset of the season when Tom Brady was being hit at a rate that rivaled years when he was most battered. And the way the season ended for this group -- with Shaq Mason allowing a sack to Philly's Brandon Graham that helped end the Super Bowl -- was obviously less than ideal. But that shouldn't overshadow how this group performed, particularly in the second half. Mason was a borderline Pro Bowl talent (Pro Football Focus' fourth-best grade at right tackle for 2017), pairing his devastating run-blocking with a vastly-improved ability to protect. David Andrews continued to play solidly and effectively make calls from his place as the line's pivot, getting through the season as PFF's No. 4-graded center. And while Joe Thuney had occasional issues with power rushers, he graded out as PFF's seventh-best left guard. Three top-10 players at their respective spots? And a reliable all-around backup in Ted Karras (three total pressures and one bad snap in two starts at center)? Plenty of teams around the league would love to be as solid up front. 


WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018: Thuney, Mason, Andrews, Karras, James Ferentz, Jason King

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED: Not dire. At all, really. It's a 1 out of 10. They have three young, relatively healthy, improving players who will come back in 2018 and should slot in as immediate starters. The No. 1 backup at all three interior spots, Karras, is back as well. Ferentz is veteran depth piece who spent last season on the team's practice squad and was given a future contract by the team soon after the Super Bowl. Jason King (and Cole Croston who can play both guard and tackle) will also be back with the team when offseason training begins. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY: The best guard on the market was one of the best guards in the league in 2017: Carolina's Andrew Norwell. Other veterans who will garner interest on the market? Colts 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort and former Patriots starter Josh Kline. Jonathan Cooper, briefly a Patriot, will also be back on the market this offseason. Will the Patriots be interested in any of them? My guess is no, unless the team is put in an impossible situation at left tackle and they want to try Thuney on the outside, freeing up their left guard spot . . . but that's a pretty far-fetched scenario at this point. Even though Thuney played tackle in college, the Patriots drafted him to play on the inside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT: Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson will be fascinating to track on draft day. The 330-pound guard is considered by some to be one of the two or three best football players in the draft. He's touted by experts as a surefire longtime starter with All-Pro potential. But he's a guard. Are teams going to be willing to spend a top-10 or top-15 pick on a position that is ably filled by late-round picks and undrafted players all over the league? Nelson's an interesting case study in that regard. It's a pretty strong draft class at the top, it seems. Georgia's Isaiah Wynn and Texas-El Paso's Will Hernandez have received first-round buzz, as have a few centers: Iowa's James Daniels, Arkansas' Frank Ragnow and Ohio State's Billy Price. Then there are the tackles-who-may-be-guards-at-the-next-level. Texas' Connor Williams, who we mentioned in our tackle assessment, is the biggest name who could end up getting kicked inside. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT: There really isn't much to address, in my opinion. However, there's a little wrinkle here that's worth keeping in mind. The Patriots were reportedly interested in drafting Indiana's center/guard prospect Dan Feeney in the third round last year. They had the 72nd pick. He ended up going to the Chargers at No. 71. The Patriots traded down for a pair of picks when Feeney was gone. One was used to get defensive end Derek Rivers. The other helped them snag tackle Tony Garcia. Why the interest in Feeney? His size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and athletic profile (7.52-second three-cone, 101-inch broad jump) actually compared somewhat favorably to those of Logan Mankins (6-4, 307, 7.52-second three-cone, 95-inch broad jump). The idea of having him at center, between Thuney and Mason, could've been enticing. So will the Patriots jump at the chance to add a similarly-gifted player to play in the middle if the opportunity presents itself? Never say never, but I don't think so. Andrews received an extension after the draft, keeping him in New England through 2020, and he was named a captain before the 2017 season.


Mason coming into his own to power Patriots' O-line

Mason coming into his own to power Patriots' O-line

FOXBORO - On a 44-yard jaunt by Dion Lewis Sunday, guard Shaq Mason chipped down on the defensive tackle before easily advancing to the second level to take out the linebacker, freeing the diminutive Lewis to break into the secondary. 


Later, on Rex Burkhead’s 30-yard run, Mason exploded out of his stance, pulling right past Cam Fleming, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen to flatten Tre’Davious White, freeing Burkhead to waltz down the sideline with nary a body to worry about.

On the Patriots’ touchdown scoring drive in the third quarter, Josh McDaniels called the same play twice within a 5-play span. Why? Because of Mason. Against an even front, he pulled with such quickness that he was on top of an unsuspecting linebacker to pave the way for an easy six yards. Once the Pats entered the red zone, they went back to the play. Facing an odd-man front, Mason pulled but recognized leakage from the backside linebacker. Instead of turning up and blocking the first off-colored jersey he saw in the hole, Mason peeled back and walled off that penetration. Lewis scooted through the opening and nearly scored, picking up 15 of the 16 yards to the goal line.

“I love when they give me the opportunity to get out in front of the play,” said Mason.

That opportunity has come frequently for Mason, who’s entered the conversation as one of the best guards in the league. He joins a long and impressive line at that position in Patriots history, from the greatest of all-time, John Hannah, to borderline Hall of Famer Logan Mankins and Mankins' teammate from that era, Steven Neal. 

“I don't think we've had many guards as athletic as Shaq,” said Bill Belichick. “He's pretty athletic. He's got a real good lower body. He's got a lot of leg strength and can move people and he can run very well, as you mentioned, on screens and pulling plays and so forth. He's really an athletic player that's strong, and explosive, and can make blocks in-line, and can also get out into space and run and make blocks in space. That's a pretty tough combination.”

Projecting Mason as a professional was complicated. He plied his trade at Georgia Tech, where passing plays are called only out of desperation. The Ramblin’ Wreck run on first down, second down, third down and fourth if they had to. In addition, their playbook is minuscule. Seventy plays recalled Mason, maybe less. He had to learn how to handle the sheer volume of the Josh McDaniels offense, but more difficult, this newfangled skill known as “pass blocking.” 

“We didn’t do that often,” said Mason, a man of few words.

But Mason worked at it, compensating for his shorter arms by relying heavily on quick feet. He was merely average at fending off pass rusher as a rookie but made that second-year leap last season, earning some Pro Bowl consideration. Now in year three, Mason should be a lock. He’s allowed one sack by my count. That hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“in some cases, his athleticism shows itself the most when he has to redirect and handle himself in pass protection in an individual one-on-one match-up,” said McDaniels. “We don't often think of that as the time that's going to show up the most, but sometimes when the line slides the other direction and you're one-on-one there, and a good rusher has a lot of space to get to the quarterback and disrupt the passing game, you have to be able to move your feet and redirect. The rushers, obviously, have more than one move and they counter and then Shaq would counter.”

Mason acknowledges there were some steps to take when he left Georgia Tech but with that quiet confidence, he wanted to make sure everyone knows it wasn’t something he felt he couldn’t handle.

“It wasn’t as big a jump as some may think but it definitely was an adjustment coming from the college I came from to here,” he said. “But I was certain I could do it.”

The rest of the league is now certain too.

Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?


Have the offseason changes negatively affected the Patriots locker room?

The Patriots improve their record to 4-2 with a win over the Jets, but there are still a lot of concerning factors for New England. Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen talk about something the team isn't used to - close games.

Giardi also dives into whether there is a major problem with the locker room dynamic, and whether all the moves they made in the offseason were blown way out of proportion by the media and fans of the talent added, but didn't factor in the personalities they lost.

Koppen and Giardi also look at how the offensive line play has fallen off, despite the same personnel as last year. Finally, discussing the late scratch of Stephon Gilmore due to a concussion. Anything to read into the timing?