Patriots

Why Marcus Cannon's absence makes this year's Patriots schedule that much tougher

Patriots

As the number of Patriots choosing to opt out for 2020 continues to slowly billow, one of the first names to make that choice is looking more and more like a significant loss.

Marcus Cannon has started each of the last 50 games in which he's played. In 2016, he was one of the best tackles in football, earning second-team All-Pro honors.

His mammoth frame protected Tom Brady and cleared running lanes well enough to help the Patriots win Super Bowls LI and LII. 

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His 2019 season did not go down as one of his best, but he was lauded for playing through illness by Bill Belichick, and he still ended up with a pass-blocking efficiency rate — tabulated by Pro Football Focus — of 96.6. His successful pass-block percentage equaled that of Pittsburgh's Alejandro Villanueva, San Francisco's Mike McGlinchey and Tennessee's Jack Conklin, who was just made the highest-paid right tackle in the NFL by the Browns.

But the Patriots won't miss Cannon only because the succession plan behind him — second-year man Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham? — is hazy.

It goes beyond that. The edge-rushers scheduled to square off against the right side of the Patriots offensive line this season are among the best in football. 

Long gone are the days when a quarterback's blindside was the spot that needed the most attention on a weekly basis. The old football cliché of needing a "dancing bear" at left tackle to shadow top-tier pass-rushers and a "road grader" at right tackle to run block no longer applies.

 

Pass-rushers come from all angles in today's NFL, including off the offensive right. Some of the players on the 2020 Patriots schedule who faced right tackles more often than they faced left tackles last season? 

Von Miller is annually considered among the best at his craft. Per PFF, he rushed off the offensive right 324 times compared to 114 times off the offensive left last season. He'll see the Patriots in Week 5.

Chandler Jones has developed into one of the most productive pass-rushers in football in Arizona. He'll make his way back to the place where his career began in Week 12 after rushing against right tackles 305 times (compared to 272 on the opposite side) in 2019.

The very next week, Joey Bosa — who just became the highest-paid defender in football after inking a $135 million contract extension with the Chargers — will take on New England's pass-protection plan. Like Jones, he'll rush off both edges, but Bosa was found more frequently on the offensive right (242 snaps) than the offensive left (216) last year. 

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In Week 11, the Patriots will head to Houston to take on the Texans and future Hall-of-Famer J.J. Watt. Typically aligned on the offensive right (267 snaps), Watt rarely made it over to the left edge (27) last season.  

When healthy, San Fran's Dee Ford is another player who favors the offensive right side. In an injury-shortened 2019, he rushed 144 times off the offensive right and only 18 off the opposite end. In 2018, with the Chiefs, his splits were 335 snaps off the offensive right and 183 off the offensive left. The Niners and Patriots will meet in Week 7. 

Former Patriots outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy was heavily featured off the defensive left edge in New England — 341 pass-rushing snaps off that side versus 71 off the right — so he'll see plenty of Cannon's replacement in Weeks 1 and 15. Baltimore's franchise-tagged rusher Matt Judon (239 to 162), Buffalo's Trent Murphy (378 to 8) and Kansas City's Alex Okafor (200 to 34) all rushed primarily off the offensive right last season. All can be found on the Patriots schedule. 

(One of the league's best young pass-rushers, T.J. Watt, won't see New England in the regular season. But if Pittsburgh and the Patriots happen to square off in the playoffs, Watt is one of the most right-side focused rushers in football. His pass-rush splits from last season broke down with 472 snaps from the offensive right and only 8 from the left.)

That's not to say talented pass-rushers don't still attack the blind sides of right-handed throwers. Houston's Whitney Mercilus (offensive left to right splits of 501 to 43), Buffalo's Jerry Hughes (382 to 23), San Fran's Nick Bosa (359 to 103), Kansas City's Frank Clark (293 to 119) and Denver's Bradley Chubb (374 to 51 in 2018) all rush primarily off that side. Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn will have plenty on his plate.

 

But the lineup of right-side rushers set to see the Patriots on this season's schedule makes 2020 an especially challenging year to fill the right tackle void in New England.