Patriots offensive line depth a growing concern

Andy Hart
September 18, 2019 - 7:45 am

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Through two weeks of dominant wins, the potential for the New England squad to be championship caliber, special and maybe even historic is obvious.

The Tom Brady-led offense has a unique cast of weapons anchored by versatile newcomer Antonio Brown (assuming his off-field issues don’t derail his career in Foxborough).

The defense may be as good as ever under Bill Belichick, a deep, talented, playmaking unit that’s building momentum and confidence through a hot start.

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Maybe, but there is one issue with the defending champs that’s less than ideal. One troubling, snowballing concern that has the negative potential to pull the rug out from all the otherwise oh-so-positive aspects of the team – an offensive line that not only suddenly lacks legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia’s preferred continuity, but barely has enough prepared bodies to go to battle.

A year ago the Patriots used three different starting offensive line combinations over the course of the season, with seven total players starting for the five-man unit.

Sunday afternoon against the Jets the Patriots will use their third different starting line combination in the third game of the year.

A year ago, left tackle Trent Brown, left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews each started all 16 regular season games and throughout the postseason. In fact, New England had the exact same lineup on the line from November 25th through the confetti falling on their latest Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta.

But the stability of the group that protects the 42-year-old Brady and works to open room to run for Sony Michel and Co. – which keyed the Patriots run to the Super Bowl last January – is suddenly non-existent as journeyman free agent signings are arriving in New England to be thrown right into the starting lineup, as was the case last Sunday in Miami for tackle Marshall Newhouse.

The line issues date back to the summer. Veteran backups Jared Veldheer and Brian Schwenke – who Belichick later revealed likely would have been on the 53-man roster – decided to retire.

Before the season even began, captain and the main man in the middle of all New England’s offensive line calls, center David Andrews, was lost for the year to injured reserve due to blood clots in his lungs.

Then right tackle Marcus Cannon left the opener with a left shoulder injury that sidelined him for Week 2 and maybe more than that.

Things got even worse when left tackle Isaiah Wynn limped off early on in Miami with a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve for at least eight weeks.

Two weeks into the season and New England’s front line that had been so durable, consistent and productive a year ago is down three starting bodies with almost no depth to speak of ready to pick up the slack.

Camp battles never produced the depth of talent that Belichick and Scarnecchia were looking for this summer, so the team swung late trades for tackle Korey Cunningham, interior option Jermaine Eluemunor and center Russ Bodine. Bodine was cut just a few days later.

After Cannon’s issue, New England signed Newhouse and he was actually the starter at right tackle just a few days later against the Dolphins. He swapped over to the left tackle spot when Wynn went down, with Cunningham coming on.

Just yesterday, tackle Caleb Benenoch was added to the mix.

Quite simply the Patriots line right now – outside of guards Thuney and Mason, fingers crossed! -- is a mismatched, patchwork group of journeymen backups trying to learn to work together on the fly and produce on the field for an offense that is otherwise loaded with talent and potential.

“I think they're trying to do the best they can. There's some moving parts there. Some of them anticipated or had a chance to plan for, some happened rather quickly and you have to react to those,” Belichick admitted this week. “But yeah, that group is a hardworking group. They've communicated well together and the guys with more experience helping some of the guys with less experience, but overall we've just tried to take it day-by-day and do the things that we can do. We can't do everything but we can do the things that we feel confident in, that we're able to practice and prepare for and hopefully we can do a good job of those as we're starting to expand overall with that group.”

Certainly everyone in Patriot Nation has unlimited respect for Scarnecchia and his ability to make good with the talent he’s given. But that Hall of Fame-worthy ability may be challenged these days as much as ever.

“It's a normal part of our job, and Dante does it as good or better than anybody else,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of the moving parts on the line. “He coaches every player the same. That's what we all try to do. We practice that way with each man on the roster, whether it's on the 53 or the practice squad. When they get reps, they're meaningful reps, and we are preparing them to be ready to play in the game on Sunday. The personnel that's available to you based on injury or availability, and you try to play to your strengths and you try to protect any weaknesses based on matchup that you may have on a weekly basis.

“We've got some new guys that haven't spent a lot of time in the building, and Dante and Carmen Bricillo have done a great job of getting these guys caught up and ready to play. I think that showed the other day with Newhouse and Cunningham going in and playing a lot more snaps, and they held up really well. Certainly things to work on and improve, but again that's part of coaching and that's part of the National Football League. Every guy that's here should expect to play and should expect to go out there and play their best, and that's what we anticipate preparing for this week.”

The Patriots are banged up and limited on the offensive line right now. That’s the simple reality. It’s the only major concern on the roster for a team building early season momentum as arguably the best in the NFL.

It’s too early to call the line issues a fatal flaw, especially with a guy like Scarnecchia pulling it all together. But it’s certainly an area worth monitoring moving forward, especially down the line as the schedule of foes becomes more formidable.

It’s not a sexy storyline or highlight-reel area – and it’s not the same as Saints fans dealing with Drew Brees’ injury or the Steelers losing Big Ben for the season -- but it may not be an exaggeration to say that the play of the Patriots’ work-in-progress offensive line may just decide exactly how good New England can be this season.

Related: Patriots place OT Isaiah Wynn on injured reserve