Patriots

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Patriots 2020 NFL free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots' offensive line was thrown into a state of flux before the 2019 season even began. David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer retired in June.

By Week 3 of the season, left tackle Isaiah Wynn had been placed on injured reserve, and the team had imported a whopping five different offensive linemen who had spent the offseason with other clubs.

In what was perhaps his most challenging season, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had to make things work with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle for eight weeks and backup interior lineman Ted Karras as the full-time center.

In pass-protection, they actually patched things together relatively successfully. Tom Brady recorded a career-high in throwaways -- understanding when to bail on a play that hadn't been blocked up correctly -- but as a group they had an 81.6 pass-block efficiency rating from Pro Football Focus, which was 10th in the NFL.

The running game, however, was a different story. This group struggled with that for most of the season, leading to lackluster production from their backs and a ho-hum play-action passing game. 

What's in store for this group in 2020? Any free-agent fixes available? Let's take a look.

Breaking down the current roster

Isaiah Wynn: Upon his return from IR, he held his own. He placed 18th in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency metric among NFL tackles from Week 12 (his first game back) through the Wild Card Round, allowing 13 total pressures on 263 pass-block snaps. The 2018 first-rounder needs to stay healthy -- he has just eight pro games under his belt in two years -- but figures to be the team's left tackle in 2020 unless the Patriots add a ready-made blindside protector and kick Wynn inside to guard.

Joe Thuney: Why might the Patriots want to kick Wynn inside? Because they could lose one of the game's best left guards via free agency. Thuney was named a Second-Team All-Pro for his work in 2019 and was far and away the team's most consistent blocker. He could end up setting the market for guards in free agency. Thuney enjoyed his time in New England, but keeping him around -- especially with plenty of other positions to improve and not much in the way of cap space -- could prove difficult for Bill Belichick.

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David Andrews: Pulmonary embolism ended Andrews' season before it began, and the team missed his athleticism and football IQ on the interior. Speaking at a recent charitable event, he indicated he'd find out more about his condition following check-ups next month. The Patriots have to hope he'll be given the "all clear" to return.

Shaq Mason: It was an up-and-down season for the guard, who since being drafted in 2015 has been among the team's most consistent performers. After grading out as the No. 8 and No. 4 guard in football in 2017 and 2018, per PFF, he checked in at No. 33 this past season. He has four years remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2018.

Marcus Cannon: Another player who dealt with injury -- and for a few weeks an illness that limited him -- Cannon still placed 13th in PFF's pass-block efficiency metric among tackles who played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps. He has two years left on his deal.

Marshall Newhouse: The team's fill-in tackle when Isaiah Wynn went down, he was praised for being able to grasp the offensive system relatively quickly. After a decade in the league, though, his physical limitations were apparent at times. He signed a one-year deal so his time with the Patriots is likely over.

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Ted Karras: The do-it-all interior lineman was forced into a position to be the full-time starting center with Andrews out. He performed admirably in the pass game, allowing just 11 total pressures, which was fifth-best at the position among players with at least 75 percent playing time. He's a free agent this offseason and could be targeted by the Patriots to reprise his three-position backup role as someone who understands the guard and center spots in their offense.

James Ferentz: The 30-year-old veteran backup started two games last season -- the first of his career -- and is respected in the locker room as an intelligent fill-in option. He's a free agent.

Korey Cunningham: The Patriots acquired the young tackle from Arizona for a 2020 sixth-rounder when it was clear their tackle depth was lackluster going into the season. He played just 59 snaps in 2019 and has two years left on his rookie contract. He could compete for a backup tackle spot next season.

Jermaine Eluemunor: Another young offensive lineman acquired right at the start of the regular season, Eluemunor is a player the Patriots had to have liked. They sent Baltimore -- where reportedly he was playing with starters in spring workouts -- a fourth-round pick for Eluemunor and a sixth-rounder. That kind of pick-swap deal is how the Patriots have picked up contributors in the past like Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett. Eluemunor is a restricted free agent this offseason and should be back to compete for a role.

Hjalte Froholdt: Injured during preseason play, the 2019 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas who drew Danish reporters to Foxboro missed the entirety of his rookie regular season on IR. He struggled for much of the summer and it's worth wondering how, if at all, he'll factor into any plans to fill in for a potential Joe Thuney departure. 

Yodny Cajuste: Injured when he was selected in the third round out of West Virginia, Cajuste is a good athlete who excelled in pass-protection at the college level. The Patriots could use more tackle depth -- they got caught short there last season despite understanding the importance of the position in 2017 to the point that they had four different players play capably as starters there -- and perhaps Cajuste will help in that regard in Year 2.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Andrus Peat: The Saints overpaid for Peat when they picked up the 2013 No. 7 overall pick's fifth-year option prior to the 2019 season, but this could represent a buy-low opportunity for the Patriots in free-agency if Thuney departs. Peat should not break the bank -- he was the No. 53 guard in 2019, per PFF's grades -- yet he may be viewed as a moldable talent. The Patriots have dabbled in the failed-highly-drafted-guard market before when they traded for Jonathan Cooper in 2016. Peat, drafted as a tackle but most recently a left guard, should be athletic enough to handle Patriots responsibilities and has played in a complex system in New Orleans.

Ereck Flowers: Another failed high-end draft pick, Flowers was taken four spots ahead of Peat in 2015 at No. 9 overall. Flowers is a massive body (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) who made the switch from left tackle to left guard last season. Would the Patriots view him as untapped potential with positional versatility... or as a lost cause?

Greg Robinson: Sensing a trend here? Robinson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 and has flamed out at every stop he's made in his short career. Didn't work out with the Rams. Didn't work out with the Lions in 2017. Didn't really work out with the Browns in either of the last two seasons, where he started 22 games at left tackle. But there is size (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) and physical ability there that earned him consideration as one of the college game's most talented prospects not that long ago. Could Dante Scarnecchia whip him into a starter, as he did with Trent Brown two seasons ago, kicking Isaiah Wynn inside if Thuney leaves? Robinson should cost less than the $6.4 million he made on his one-year deal in Cleveland in 2019.

Cam Fleming: Fleming served as a capable backup in New England from when he was drafted in 2014 through the 2017 season. That's what he'd be with the Patriots if he were to return on a relatively inexpensive deal after two years in Dallas. Why not list bigger-name options in this space like Bryan Bulaga from the Packers, Jack Conklin from the Titans, Anthony Costanzo from the Colts or Brandon Scherff from the 'Skins? Those players might take up a third (or more) of the approximately $30 million the Patriots have in cap space at the moment. If they were looking to spend that much, it'd likely go to Thuney. Gambling on talent and going cheaper -- even though the Patriots currently have the sixth-fewest cap dollars committed to offensive linemen for 2020 in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com -- seems like the more realistic free-agent route.

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

Report: Raiders prepared to offer Tom Brady two-year, $60 million deal

We have an actual dollar figure attached to the swirling rumors of various Tom Brady free agency landing spots.

The Brady-to-Las Vegas speculation has been out there since TB12 was spotted chatting up Raiders owner Marc Davis at the Connor McGregor-Cowboy Cerrone fight in Vegas last month. Now, veteran NFL reporter Larry Fitzgerald Sr. (father of the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver) reports that Davis' Raiders are prepared to offer TB12 a two-year, $60 million deal.

It's interesting to note that Larry Fitzgerald Jr., like Brady, is a long-time interviewee of Jim Gray on Westwood One's broadcasts of Monday and Thursday night NFL games. 

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While Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported on Super Bowl Sunday that the Patriots are willing to go beyond $30 million a year to retain Brady, it's unclear if New England would make a multi-year offer, since the face of the franchise, who'll turn 43 in August, essentially worked under a one-year deal this past season. 

Our Tom Curran has reported that while the Patriots will "extend themselves" financially to retain Brady, money is likely not the most important factor to the QB.

As Curran wrote Friday:

The persuasion in the Patriots pitch has to revolve around "who" and not "how much." The team that Brady plays for in 2020 won’t be the winner of a bidding war, it will be the one that provides the best ready-made landing spot to compete for a championship and have a shitload of fun while doing it.

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In Tom Brady's case, are NFL tampering rules made to be broken?

In Tom Brady's case, are NFL tampering rules made to be broken?

If Robert Kraft ever commissioned a sculptor to carve “10 Patriots Commandments” you’d be sure to find, “Thou Shalt Not Tamper With Our Employees” somewhere on that stone tablet.

Throughout Kraft’s ownership and Bill Belichick’s stewardship of the football operations, loyalty has been rewarded and betrayal punished.

From January 1997, when the Jets were monkeying around with Bill Parcells when the Patriots were getting ready for Super Bowl 31 against the Packers, through June 2019, when the Texans made their overtures to Nick Caserio, the Patriots have made one thing very clear: they aren’t going to be patsies when it comes to other teams trying to lure their people away.

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Which brings us to Tom Brady. As everything does. Do the Patriots care that a stealth parade of suitors is probably all up on him already?

Is this uber-protective organization fine with half of the league’s teams sniffing under the tail of the most important player in franchise history before they’re supposed to?

Rampant tampering with prospective free agents isn’t the NFL’s dirty little secret.

It’s not dirty since it’s somewhat necessary.

It’s not little since every team does it.

And it’s not even treated as a secret.

This week, the estimable and honorable Tedy Bruschi was asked about Brady on ESPN.
 

“I think he’s gonna see what’s out there for himself,” said Bruschi. “Matter of fact, I know he will. But I don’t think he’s going to have to wait until March 16 because you’ve got agents, you’ve got talk going on behind the scenes and I think he has an idea on the teams that are highly interested in him ... He will explore his options and he has the right to do so.”

The question then becomes what’s the league office going to do about it?

We all know the NFL’s penchant for selective rules enforcement. We all know they’ll happily string the Patriots up for transgressions real or imagined and let them twist in the wind. We all know the so-called Spygate II investigation that could have been cleared up in 20 minutes is still ongoing.

So, even if everybody’s doing it, isn’t it a little (a lot) hypocritical for the league to turn a blind eye to teams crawling up the trellis to slip in Brady’s window after dark?

Yes, it is. But a little hypocrisy never slowed the league down from doing anything.

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Besides, they might say, tampering with Tom Brady is actually a victimless crime. It actually does the Patriots a favor.

If Brady and his agent Don Yee have a sense of what’s out there before they start negotiating with New England, then the need for Brady to go on a free-agent tour is eliminated.

If Team Brady has no clue, then Yee starts from scratch when the legal tampering period begins March 16 at noon. 

There’s no way to vet each of the opportunities -- a source close to the situation figures there will be 10 teams expressing interest -- before free agency starts March 18 at 4 p.m.

Meanwhile, how are the Patriots supposed to convince free-agent tight ends or wideouts to come aboard if those players don’t know whether or not Tom Brady will be a Patriot? It’s easily argued that outside teams tampering with Brady is in the Patriots’ best interests.

Besides, if this really isn’t about the money -- and I’ve been told often enough that it isn’t -- it won’t matter if some crap-ass team is offering $70 million over two years.

The persuasion in the Patriots pitch has to revolve around "who" and not "how much." The team that Brady plays for in 2020 won’t be the winner of a bidding war, it will be the one that provides the best ready-made landing spot to compete for a championship and have a shitload of fun while doing it.

All that said, it will still seem odd to me if the Patriots -- whether it be Kraft or Belichick -- don’t somehow have their sense of honor offended by all the predicted sneaking around.

It’s always offended their sensibilities going back to January 1997 when it came to light that Bill Parcells spent the week leading up to Super Bowl 31 ringing up the Jets from his New Orleans hotel room instead of getting the Patriots ready to play the Packers.

The Krafts were apoplectic. Belichick, an assistant on that 1996 Patriots team, was pissed too.

"Yeah, I'd say it was a little bit of a distraction all the way around," Belichick told our Michael Holley for Holley’s book Patriot Reign. "I can tell you first hand, there was a lot of stuff going on prior to the game. I mean, him talking to other teams. He was trying to make up his mind about what he was going to do. Which, honestly, I felt [was] totally inappropriate. How many chances do you get to play for the Super Bowl? Tell them to get back to you in a couple of days. I'm not saying it was disrespectful to me, but it was in terms of the overall commitment to the team."

Every situation’s different, I guess. In this case, the tampering rules were made to be broken.