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.

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

How the reported expanded NFL playoff proposal impacts the Patriots

NFL owners are pushing for a big change that would be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. The league reportedly will propose expanding the postseason to add a seventh playoff team in each conference.

As ESPN's Adam Schefter detailed, the league would now have six games on Wild Card weekend under the new proposal, three in each conference, and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will get a playoff bye.

Also in the proposal is a 17-game regular season and a shortened preseason to three games. The changes would be implemented for the 2020 season if the new CBA is ratified by the owners and NFL Players Association.

If adopted, this is certainly a massive change and one that could have a big impact on the New England Patriots. 

The Patriots have mastered the art of qualifying for a bye in their two-decade-long dynasty. In fact, this past postseason was the first time New England didn't have a first-round bye since the 2009-10 postseason. The Patriots finished as the No. 3 seed and promptly lost to the Tennessee Titans at home, marking their earliest playoff exit since the '10 postseason.

Thus, the elimination of one of the byes could have a significant impact on the Patriots. Since Bill Belichick took over as coach before the 2000 season, the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl nine times. In each of those seasons, they've had a first-round bye.

In the Belichick Era, the Patriots have been the AFC's No. 2 seed on six occasions. They advanced to the Super Bowl and won three times in those six instances, and it's fair to wonder if they would've had a similar chance to advance had they needed to play another game, even if it was against a seventh-seeded team.

In the past seven Super Bowls overall, no team has made it to the big game without a first-round bye. The 2013 Ravens were the last team to play Wild Card weekend and make the Super Bowl.

So, needless to say, the No. 1 seed in each conference will now have a major advantage, and the Patriots are going to have to fight harder to earn it. They're certainly capable of earning the No. 1 seed. They were the No. 1 as recently as the 2017 and 2018 playoffs, when they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 and lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 52.

The road to the Super Bowl will become a little more difficult without that No. 1 seed if the new format is approved. Only once in the Patriots history have they reached the Super Bowl as a Wild Card team and that was 35 years ago in the 1985 season. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage will carry even more importance, but they'll have to outduel some powerful up-and-coming AFC teams if they want to earn it in the near future.

For a team with the NFL's toughest projected strength of schedule in 2020, that will be no easy task.

Here's how Jim Craig compares Bill Belichick's leadership to legendary Herb Brooks

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USA TODAY Sports

Here's how Jim Craig compares Bill Belichick's leadership to legendary Herb Brooks

Motivation is essential to being a great head coach, and few coaches have motivated players with more success than Bill Belichick and Herb Brooks.

Brooks was the United States men's hockey coach at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. He helped lead Team USA to an amazing 4-3 semifinal win over the Soviet Union in one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. The U.S. beat Finland for the gold medal a few days later. 

Belichick has won a record six Super Bowl titles as head coach of the New England Patriots. His first championship came in 2001 when the Patriots upset the heavily favored St. Louis Rams -- aka the "Greatest Show on Turf" -- in Super Bowl XXXVI.

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Boston University star Jim Craig was the starting goalie for Brooks' 1980 Olympic team, and in an appearance Wednesday on WEEI's "Dale & Keefe" show, he explained how Brooks and Belichick are so effective in instilling a strong sense of belief in their players. 

“What both Herb and Bill have very much in common is there's only one winner, and they know that. What they do is they focus and prepare to win, not to compete against a team. That preparation for us was so revolutionary, and Herb drove change. We played 61 games in a little over four months, and we played it against the best in the world. What he did is he put us in positions to fail so that we would know how to prepare to win. As we got closer as teams, the recruiting and how Herb recruited was really great. All the teammates that I played with had won at every level. They knew how to win.

"In the book I always say it's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody has to take credit. What Bill does really well, in my opinion, and what Herb did really well is they don’t take credit for it. It’s their job. They prepare. They become your confidence. In leadership, there’s two types of leaders: There's people who want people to follow them, and there’s people who want people to believe them. Herb and Bill are ones who prepare people so that not only do they believe in what he’s doing or what the coach is doing, but they believe it themselves."

One part that sticks out from Craig's comments is not taking credit. Belichick isn't one to publicly praise himself for a great season, even as he's gripping the Lombardi Trophy after a Super Bowl triumph. 

It's all about the team, doing your job, and trusting your teammate will do his job. It all sounds cliché, but it's impossible to argue with the results from Belichick's and Brooks' legendary careers as coaches.