Marcus Cannon

Should Patriots move Joe Thuney to right tackle? 'Whatever is necessary'

Should Patriots move Joe Thuney to right tackle? 'Whatever is necessary'

It's not exactly a been-there-done-that situation for Joe Thuney. But if the Patriots asked their starting left guard of the last four years to bounce over to the right side of the line and play tackle?

He has ... technically ... been there and done that. 

Eight snaps. Thuney saw eight snaps at right tackle last season in the season-opener after Marcus Cannon left the game injured. And now that Cannon has opted out of the 2020 season, folks want to know if Thuney will once again be the "next man up" at that position. 

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"Whatever can help the team," he said in a video conference call with reporters Wednesday. "I think I got a couple right tackle snaps in the Pittsburgh game, the opening game last year. Whatever can help the team. Doesn't matter where. Trying to do what I can, try to use the tools that I have to help the team. Whatever's necessary. I just want to be out there and playing."

Perhaps the most important question the Patriots have to answer as they get ready for the regular season to kick off — outside of, "Is Cam Newton healthy?" — is what will they do at right tackle in Cannon's absence? There is no clear replacement.

Could be 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste. Could be last year's early-season trade acquisition Korey Cunningham. Could be Thuney. 

But how that question gets answered could go a long way in determining wins and losses for Bill Belichick's club as it takes on a regular-season schedule loaded with dominating pass-rushers who like to go to work against right tackles.

"Definitely different," Thuney said of his brief experience at right tackle. "I think the coaches did a great job of trying to get reps and everything in practices. We got a lot of guys who get reps at different positions just because you never know. You go into a game with seven o-linemen usually. The more you can do, the better. Just tried to keep the fundamentals the same and do whatever I could."

The issue with shifting Thuney over to that side, would be that for whatever comfort Josh McDaniels and his offense would be granted in making the move, the team would be paying for it with a drop-off at left guard. Thuney has in the last few seasons established himself as one of the best left guards in football, earning the franchise tag this offseason which will guarantee him almost $15 million for the year. 

It's a weighty conundrum. Move a very good player to a spot where he might not be as effective and replace him with a backup? Or, if that's considered robbing Peter to pay Paul, roll with a complete unknown at one of the most important positions on the line? Is it easier to find a serviceable replacement at guard or tackle? Who's available?

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All of those questions will end up determining the Patriots' plan up front in some way shape or form.

Tasked with replacing left tackle Isaiah Wynn in 2019, the Patriots opted to sign veteran street free agent Marshall Newhouse and make him a starter rather than, say, bump Thuney out to left tackle and insert reserve Jermaine Eluemunor at left guard. Perhaps that strategy is indicative of how the Patriots proceed this season. Or perhaps Newhouse's performance last season as a fill-in will urge them to take a different approach. 

Whatever they decide, it sounds like Thuney — who's going into a contract year while on the tag — will be OK with it.

"You're dealing with different body types, going from guard to end," Thuney explained. "Your legs and arms are reversed and stuff, I guess. We do a great job moving guys around in practice so it's not the first time you've ever taken a snap on the right side during the game. 

"Just the next-man-up mentality, and if that means shifting someone over that means shifting someone over. Just trying to do what I can. Just want to help the team and want to be out there."

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

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

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.

Young guys, come on down: Opt-outs may offer early glimpse into Patriots future

Young guys, come on down: Opt-outs may offer early glimpse into Patriots future

When the Patriots take the field in 2020 they'll be a little younger, which for them is a relatively new phenomenon for them.

The oldest team in football last year, the Patriots were looking like one of the oldest teams in the NFL once again to start 2020 — even after Tom Brady's departure. That may still be the case, yet with the opt-outs of players like Brandon Bolden, Marcus Cannon, Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower, the team lost a quartet of key contributors, each of whom was at least 30 years old.

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The result? Well, to start, question marks. 

There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower. There is no obvious answer at right tackle after Cannon. The Patriots are better equipped to handle Chung's absence with their depth at safety, but his experience in the system working alongside safety Devin McCourty is unique and makes his departure a more difficult one to absorb.

Odds are, though, that as the Patriots look into filling each spot — including the core special teams role held by Bolden — there will be younger players who receive more opportunities than they otherwise might've had it not been for COVID. For a team that has been so heavy on veterans in recent years, a team with depth charts stacked with 30-somethings, a youth movement of sorts will offer up something Patriots fans haven't been all that used to: a glimpse into the future.

Of course, Bill Belichick has received key contributions in recent years from young players like Sony Michel, J.C. Jackson and Chase Winovich. But consider this: The Patriots opened last season with an average age of 27.2 years old (oldest in the league); in 2018, they had an average age of 26.8 (30th in the NFL); in 2017 they checked in at 26.5 (26th). 

Belichick and his front-office staff seem to have willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. But that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other clubs.

In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out. They won a Super Bowl.

Last season, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.

Going into this year's draft, no team had fewer players on rookie contracts (28), and no roster had a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). That was even with veteran free agents like Brady, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not counting against their books. The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals was the Saints (60.4 percent). 

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The Patriots haven't been oblivious to that trend. In an effort to fortify their younger base, they drafted in bulk in recent years, taking 19 players between 2018 and 2019. But only three of those to this point have at least five starts in a season to their names: Michel, Isaiah Wynn and N'Keal Harry. Jackson, who went undrafted in 2018, is the only other first- or second-year player with at least five starts in a season.

In the spring, Belichick and Nick Caserio added 10 more draft picks to the mix as they transition to becoming a younger roster. As has been the case for the last few seasons, though, it looked like it'd be difficult for any of them — maybe outside of the tight ends and the kicker — to quickly turn themselves into regulars. 

Then this week happened. 

Hightower's opt-out will almost certainly require the Patriots to lean on third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley to serve as a communicator in the middle of the defense. But Hightower's departure also exacerbates whatever difficulty the Patriots were already scheduled to confront with Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts leaving via free agency earlier in the offseason. Not only can the Patriots not count on one player to replace Hightower because of his varied skill set, but they were also on the hook to try to replace three more veteran linebackers who knew the Patriots defense inside and out. 

Even with no preseason, no rookie minicamp, no OTAs, first-year players like second-round pick Josh Uche and third-round choice Anfernee Jennings could be thrust into action when about a week ago it might've made sense to try to give one or both a "red-shirt year" to develop.

Those who occupy the Patriots front seven don't have that luxury this year. Uche's dynamic athleticism may flash earlier than anticipated if he's called upon to help make up for the Hightower blitzes the team likes to deploy. Jennings' power at the end of the line of scrimmage might now come under the microscope more quickly with both Hightower and Van Noy gone.

An intensified spotlight is something second-round pick Kyle Dugger out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne may also have to deal with. He looked like an obvious candidate to sit for a season behind Chung, learn from the veteran, and maybe use his eye-popping athletic skills to contribute on special teams as he picked up Belichick's defense. Now — though the Patriots have a pair of veterans with Chung-like tools in newly-acquired free agent Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks — Dugger may be an injury away from seeing defensive snaps of consequence. 

On the offensive line, Yodny Cajuste is going to be participating in his first set of Patriots practices this summer. Recovering from a quad injury last year, he didn't partake in any on-the-field workouts with his new team. That makes coming into this season with a legitimate role a less-than-ideal scenario. But that may be the reality for the 2019 third-rounder with Cannon gone and no clear-cut replacement waiting in the wings.

Belichick's hand won't be forced from a personnel perspective. When he says he's going to "do what's best for the football team," he means it.

Oftentimes, that means the known commodity of veteran help gets the nod over younger athletes with higher ceilings. But tied up in all that will be different for the Patriots in 2020 is the possibility that "what's best for the football team" in some spots, particularly after a wave of opt-outs, is playing those who are youngest.