Patriots

Offensive line is the only thing that can derail Patriots

Offensive line is the only thing that can derail Patriots

Antonio Brown is more buzzworthy than Isaiah Wynn, but even he might not have as a big a make-or-break effect on the New England Patriots' stroll to the Super Bowl as the redshirt freshman tackle.

The Patriots are placing Wynn, who injured his foot Sunday against the Dolphins, on injured reserve. He'll miss at least eight weeks. The most important position as it relates to protecting Tom Brady isn't just a question mark, it's and bold and italicized font. Big as hell.

It's hard to look at the Patriots right now and worry -- they're not going to, like, lose a game soon or anything -- but how the Patriots fare in the regular season is never really in question. They're going to tear it up against a bunch of inferior opponents, then play a few difficult games late in the season and finish with a bye. Tale as old as time.

But we measure success in championships here, and going into the season, the only thing that could put the Patriots' championship hopes at risk would be if Wynn, coming off a rookie season lost to injury and replacing the now-highest-paid-lineman-in-the-league Trent Brown (who signed with the Raiders), was either ineffective or hurt.

He looked like a stud in the preseason, so questions about whether he could play were quelled a bit. Then starting center David Andrews was lost for the season with blood clots and right tackle Marcus Cannon got hurt. The Pats were already down two guys on the offensive line before Wynn got hurt.

I don't understand Pro Football Focus' grades and neither do you, but through the first two weeks, Wynn is graded as the 11th-best pass-blocking left tackle. He's passed the eye test, too.

We don't know how Marshall Newhouse (the guy who played in his place) did because he was playing against the stupid Dolphins. The Pats reportedly signed another guy, Caleb Benenoch, on Tuesday. The sooner Cannon gets back, the better, but even when Wynn returns, he'll have still missed at least 24 of 26 career regular-season games since entering the league. Can a team that's so well set-up otherwise to win a Super Bowl just cross its fingers that the left tackle can stay healthy long enough to get them through a playoff run?

Teams are trading first-round picks like hotcakes these days. Granted, that's because the players getting traded are first-round picks on their rookie deals, but the point stands. Big deals are happening.

And for a team that's so clearly built to win the Super Bowl, it would be worth making a big splash to stabilize things at left tackle. Trent Williams, 31, is holding out for Washington and they're 0-2 to start the season. With an estimated $7.53 million in cap space according to Spotrac, the Patriots would probably need to create space to fit him, but the Patriots should at least look into it. They're too good across the board to just hope for the best up front.

Make no mistake, Dante Scarnecchia has his reputation for a reason. He turns offensive linemen who might burn out elsewhere into stars. But this is a thin, injury-riddled group that's being tasked with blocking for (earmuffs) a quarterback in his 40s who could naturally begin to sense pressure when it isn't there more and more.

AB's antics? They can just cut him if he gets bad enough. Tight end? They can make do. Stephen Gostkowski missing a couple of kicks? Please. The offensive line is a different story, and really the only thing that could get in the way of another Super Bowl.  

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Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

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Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.