Patriots

Patriots

Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. Frank Clark and Chris Jones. Chandler Jones. Aaron Donald.

Now that we know what the Patriots schedule looks like, we can start to envision the challenges they'll face on both sides of the ball.

Based on the long list of premier pass-rushers it'll see week after week, there may not be a group on Bill Belichick's roster that's more consistently challenged than his offensive line. 

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Not only will that group have to deal with supreme talents across the line of scrimmage, but they'll also have to help a new quarterback — whether that's Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham — get comfortable behind center. They'll have to navigate the season without Dante Scarnecchia, who retired this offseason. And they'll have to stay healthier than they did last year when Tom Brady had backups at left tackle and center protecting him. No small feat.

LOCK 'EM IN

The Patriots should be able to open training camp — whenever that happens — with the starting five they hoped to have all last year: left tackle Isaiah Wynn, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon. 

Getting Andrews back after he missed all of 2019 with blood clots in his lungs is an early victory for the Patriots.

 

Not only will his understanding of protections and leadership be critical, but he provides an element of athleticism at the position that will allow Josh McDaniels to vary his calls if he wants to get his linemen moving laterally in the run or pass games. 

ON THE BUBBLE

There were a variety of reserves on the roster at different points in 2019 who remain under contract. But their place on the team is far from certain.

Yodny Cajuste was a third-round selection last year and should have a good shot at remaining with the club if healthy, but he missed all of 2019 on the non-football injured reserve list. If available, he'd be a good candidate to serve as a swing tackle. Hjalte Froholdt, an interior lineman taken in the fourth round last year, had a difficult camp that ended with an injury that ended his rookie season. He's an option as interior depth after the Patriots lost Ted Karras to free agency this offseason. 

Korey Cunningham and Jermaine Eluemunor were put in tough spots last year, arriving early in the season via trade, but both held onto roster spots throughout the year. (Cunningham played 59 snaps in total, while Eluemunor saw 29.) They could compete for reserve tackle and guard spots, respectively. Eluemunor played some tackle while with the Ravens, which may give him a leg up on others here because he has some positional flexibility. 

The first offensive lineman selected by the Patriots in the draft, sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu out of Michigan, is an intriguing under-the-radar option to make the roster. At 6-foot-3 and about 350 pounds, he has rare power and good athleticism to allow him to compete with burly interior defenders.

LONG SHOTS

The Patriots selected two more linemen on Day 3 of the draft, Justin Herron and Dustin Woodard, who may be best-suited as practice-squad candidates early in their careers.

Helping Herron is that he's a smart player who started for four seasons at left tackle at Wake Forest, and he's athletic enough to kick inside to guard. Woodard, meanwhile, is a touch undersized at 6-foot-1, 291 pounds, but he's another high-I.Q. player with four years of starting experience at Memphis. Looking like a center at the next level, Woodard could end up this year's James Ferentz as a backup pivot should the Patriots want one.

Interior option Najee Toran spent last season on the Patriots practice squad and will have another crack at the roster this summer.

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NEWCOMER TO WATCH

Yodny Cajuste is someone who may have dropped out of the collective New England consciousness over the last year. Even though he's not technically a newcomer, he could end up an important newcomer to the offensive line rotation in Foxboro in 2020. 

 

Cajuste was injured before he was drafted, the Patriots took him anyway, and he never saw the practice field. Not an ideal start to his career. This year could be a challenge for him (and anyone else trying to bounce back from injury) given the shortened offseason and limited access to team facilities. But if history is any indication, the Patriots are going to need tackle help. They needed it desperately last year and ended up using street free agent Marshall Newhouse as their starting left tackle for half the season. They needed four different starting tackles in 2017 en route to a Super Bowl. 

They're going to need someone to back up Cannon and Wynn and be ready to play. Cajuste could be that guy. He was considered a bit raw technique-wise prior to the 2019 draft but he's athletic, he showed good awareness at West Virginia, and his length (34-inch arms) is NFL caliber.

X-FACTOR

There are a number of items we could've highlighted here.

Thuney is playing on the franchise tag and still could be dealt if the Patriots get desperate for salary-cap space. Andrews' return is massive. Wynn's health — he's played eight games in his first two seasons — is always worth watching. 

But the story for this group in 2020 will be how do they handle life after "Scar." The last time Scarnecchia retired, Dave DeGuglielmo stepped in and won a ring in 2014. That was a difficult transition, though, going from one coach to another with two very different styles. 

Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich are expected to help guide the group this year. Both have spent significant time working closely with Scarnecchia in the past so there should be some consistency there in terms of approach.

But it's hard to know how this unit will react to adverse moments — from week to week and series to series — without one of the best and most thorough assistant coaches in NFL history there to hold the reins.