Isaiah Wynn

Patriots' Isaiah Wynn excited to get back on NFL field after recent injuries

Patriots' Isaiah Wynn excited to get back on NFL field after recent injuries

Isaiah Wynn has played well for the New England Patriots, the only problem is injuries have prevented him from being on the field for long stretches during his brief NFL career.

The Patriots selected Wynn in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, but a torn achilles in August of that year forced him to miss his entire rookie campaign. He returned healthy for the 2019 season but suffered a foot injury in a Week 2 victory over the Miami Dolphins that kept him out the next eight games.

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Wynn is understandably excited to get back on the field and show his impressive talent for a full season.

"Last year for me really was my really rookie year, so I had some occasional rookie ups and downs especially coming back the last (six) games," Wynn told Patriots.com writer Paul Perillo. "I still have a lot of room to improve on. I'm looking forward to getting back out there and being out there regularly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented plenty of challenges for players across the league over the offseason, but Wynn has been able to make the most of it so far.

"This offseason was my first official offseason because I'm able to just go out and work out and not rehab," Wynn said, per Perillo. "It's been different. It's great being able to still be involved with everything that's going on with our team with the meetings and all that, but that aspect of not having that camaraderie of being in the same facility together is missed. Other than that it's been great."

It's not a stretch to say Wynn could be among the most pivotal pieces to the Patriots' success in 2020.

New England struggled to replace him last season as Marshall Newhouse and others struggled at left tackle. Pass protection also will be more critical than ever if Jarrett Stidham starts at quarterback as Tom Brady's replacement. Stidham is entering his second pro season and has thrown only four regular season passes in his career. His limited experience will be an even bigger problem if the pass rush consistently breaks down. The run game also struggled in 2019 when the Patriots finished as one of nine teams to average less than four yards per carry.  A strong rushing attack would ease the burden on Stidham to carry the offense.

Wynn has good size and athleticism, and his performance in the limited amount of games he's played has been impressive. The challenge for him is staying healthy consistently, and if he's able to play close to a full season in 2020, the Patriots offense could be better than expected.

Patriots Roster Reset: Offensive line shifts with Scarnecchia retirement, Andrews return

Patriots Roster Reset: Offensive line shifts with Scarnecchia retirement, Andrews return

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.

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

2018 NFL Draft: Only four Patriots remain from draft-in-bulk approach

The Patriots had Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Damien Woody and Tom Brady in 2001. They had Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer and Matthew Slater in 2010.

Under Bill Belichick, as the Patriots went from version 0.0 to 1.0 to 2.0, there was a young core in place that served as their pulse. As they went, the team went. Championships followed. 

The outlook for version 3.0 is hazy. The young core is thin and rife with question marks after the Patriots went about maximizing Brady's last few seasons in New England by trading away picks for established veterans. Who makes up the core now? How many core pieces are there?

We're examining each of the Patriots' last four drafts to see how they got here, on the brink of a new era for the longest-running dynasty in modern NFL history, with an uncertain road ahead.

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In this edition we tackle the 2018 draft, when the Patriots had two first-round choices and got back to drafting in bulk after a meager (only four picks, none until the third round) 2017 class.

Isaiah Wynn, OL, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 23)

Good athlete. Smart. Came from an offense that wasn't a glorified seven-on-seven scheme. Wynn was an ideal Patriots offensive lineman, and he was physically gifted enough to earn a shot at the left tackle job despite being shorter and possessing shorter arms than the Patriots prototype.

He did get that shot, then tore his Achilles as a rookie. He came back to start his sophomore season on Tom Brady's blind side but got hurt again. A foot injury sapped half his season. All in all, he looks like he could be a staple up front for the Patriots. But he's played eight games in two years. 

Who they could’ve had: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland (Round 1, Pick 24)

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (Round 1, Pick No. 31)

The Patriots double-dipped on Bulldogs in the first round, taking a running back who was projected to be a do-it-all pro. He was a dynamic, slashing runner who broke arm tackles regularly for Kirby Smart's program. But as a pro, his value in the passing game has been almost nonexistent.

He now looks like a specialist who would qualify as a Patriots "big back," taking on the role once held by LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There's value in that. He helped carry the team to a long playoff run and Super Bowl win in 2018. He could grow into more of a receiver or pass-protector moving forward. He's still young. But knee injuries have taken him off the field at times and perhaps stunted his growth.

Who they could’ve had: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (Round 1, Pick 32)

Duke Dawson, CB, Florida (Round 2, Pick No. 56)

This pick was one of many that spawned from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Made sense at the time. He was a slot-specific defensive back. Slot corners have value because slot receivers are among the most efficient in football. Didn't pan out. Clearly.

He injured his hamstring during a drill in his rookie training camp, and was placed on injured reserve to start that season. The Patriots designated him as one of their players to return off of IR, but he never played a snap that season. He was traded the following summer to the Broncos (along with a seventh-round pick) to get a sixth-rounder in return. 

Who they could’ve had: Mark Andrews, TE, Oklahoma (Round 3, Pick 86)

Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB, Purdue (Round 5, Pick No. 143)

Bentley was viewed — as a 260-pound linebacker — by some linebacker-needy teams as not being worthy of a spot on their draft board. He was a dinosaur. Too big. Too slow. Not someone who'd thrive when speed and quickness is becoming more important for second-level defenders in coverage. The Patriots didn't care. They like their 'backers beefy.

Bentley actually ended up winning a key defensive role right off the bat. He started the season-opener and two of his first three games. An injury in Week 3 sapped the remainder of his season. Stuck behind a deep linebacker group in his second season, Bentley didn't have much of a chance to make an impact. But that might be coming for him in Year 3. After losing Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, they need capable bodies at the linebacker level. Given what he showed as a rookie, Bentley is certainly capable. 

Who they could’ve had: Michael Dickson, P, Texas (Round 5, Pick 149)

Christian Sam, LB, Arizona State (Round 6, Pick No. 178)  

Into Day 3 of the draft, the Patriots took their hacks at some potential special-teamers and reserve types. Sam falls into that category. A linebacker with good athleticism and toughness, he landed on injured reserve before the start of his rookie season. Sticking with the team for his Year 2 training camp, he was released and not re-signed to the practice squad. The Dolphins, run by former Patriots assistant Brian Flores, scooped him up for their practice squad first. He's since bounced around a bit to the Niners p-squad and the Lions p-squad. He's set to enter camp with Matt Patricia's Lions. 

Who they could’ve had: Gus Edwards, RB, Rutgers (Undrafted)

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Braxton Berrios, WR, Miami (Round 6, Pick No. 210)

Berrios was a water bug-quick route runner with punt-return experience who was considered a leader for the Hurricanes during his tenure there. He was yet another rookie who ended up on IR for a team that was loaded with capable veteran contributors. It looked like 2019 might be his chance to work his way into a role, but he had an odd training camp. At times it looked like he was lost. At others he looked like he had an opportunity to fill the slot the Patriots wanted to address with Cole Beasley or Adam Humphries in free agency.

Then he was held out of preseason game No. 3. He was released at the end of camp. He seemed like an ideal candidate to try to sneak onto the practice squad. The Jets didn't let that happen. Despite limited preseason game reps, he was claimed off of waivers and added to their active roster. He ended up seeing offensive snaps in 11 games but caught just six passes on 10 targets for 115 yards. 

Who they could’ve had: Allen Lazard, WR, Iowa State (Undrafted)

Danny Etling, QB, LSU (Round 7, Pick No. 219)

The Patriots explained after the draft that they liked Etling's performance at his pro day. He had a good arm. He was smart. He might not have been coached up all that well at LSU. His offense there might've been a little wonky. Maybe he was a diamond in the rough?

Not so.

While he was the consummate professional throughout his rookie camp, his highlight of the summer was an 86-yard touchdown run in the preseason finale. He spent that year on the practice squad and came back to Patriots camp the following summer as a receiver. He was waived before the end of camp and picked up by the Falcons. He spent most of the 2019 season on the Atlanta practice squad as a quarterback.

Who they could’ve had: Kyle Allen, QB, Houston (Undrafted)

Keion Crossen, CB, Western Carolina (Round 7, Pick No. 243)

The Patriots took a flier on an athlete from little-known Western Carolina, and by the end of the year, it looked like they'd hit. Crossen was a special-teams contributor throughout his rookie season — really all one could ask from a seventh-rounder — and he popped up in the AFC Championship Game that year with a key defensive role. For a period that day, he shadowed Chiefs burner Tyreek Hill with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

It looked like he could be molded into a defensive contributor with time. He didn't get that in New England, where the corner room was crowded. He was dealt to the Texans at the end of training camp in 2019 for a 2021 sixth-round pick.

Who they could’ve had: Levi Wallace, CB, Alabama (Undrafted)

Ryan Izzo, TE, Florida State (Round 7, Pick No. 250)

A Jersey kid who went to Florida State and became a key contributor in their pro style offense, Izzo made sense as a hard-nosed camp body. He'd compete with whoever was behind Rob Gronkowski. Make 'em work. He'd chip in on special teams, potentially. Still looked that way headed into 2019 after he missed his entire rookie season on IR (sensing a theme here?). We never assumed he'd be the defacto No. 1 tight end after Gronkowski retired. But he was at times. Matt LaCosse was injured. Other veteran acquisitions didn't work out.

Critical game snaps fell to Izzo for four weeks (Weeks 1, 3, 5, 6), who was serviceable as a receiver in spurts but looked overwhelmed in the running game. For 2020, he looks like a backup option to LaCosse and/or whatever tight end is drafted later this month. Izzo, A.J. Derby (2015) and Lee Smith (2011) are the three tight ends the Patriots drafted after taking Gronkowski in the second round in 2010.

Who they could’ve had: Poona Ford, DT, Texas (Undrafted)