The defending Super Bowl 53 champion New England Patriots opened Training Camp at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, July 25th. Despite a thrilling run through the NFL Playoffs last year, the Patriots open the 2019 preseason with question marks on both sides of the ball.
The offense that put up 78 points in their first two playoff games has some huge holes to fill due to free agents leaving and retirement, no bigger transaction than future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Also, for the second consecutive season, there is a gaping hole at the most important position on the offensive line–left tackle.
The defense shut down a Rams offense that averaged 32.9 points per game to just three points. (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted) was hit by free agent defections and an almost wholesale turnover of the defensive coaching staff. The loss of heart-and-soul edge rusher Trey Flowers is a big loss.
Despite all this player movement, the Patriots are favorites once again to compete for the Super Bowl with a number of trades, free agent signings, and a promising NFL Draft class hungry to make their impact on the field in 2019. These new players are ready to step in for their chance to win a championship and push the established veterans who already have their jewelry.
To get you ready for Training Camp, let’s go through some of the areas of concern heading into camp and look at what players to keep an eye on over the summer. Part one looked at the defensive end position and part two focused on defensive tackle. Part three looks at the “all-important to protect the franchise” offensive line.
After remarkable stability at the left tackle position for much of the Bill Belichick era (Matt Light and Nate Solder) there has been a revolving door at the position. After 2017, Solder left for the Giants to become the highest paid offensive tackle. New England replaced him with Trent Brown–who subsequently left to become the highest paid offensive tackle one years later going to Oakland.
New England will have a new left tackle for the third straight season. For arguably the most important position on the offensive line, there has been an alarming amount of turnover. New England proactively tried to fill the position by spending a first-round draft pick on Isaiah Wynn in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Unfortunately, Wynn spent all of 2018 on injured reserve after an Achilles injury in the preseason sidelined him. Staying proactive, the Patriots turned to free agency to grab veteran Jared Veldhee to help offset the loss of Brown at left tackle and take some pressure off of Wynn. The other four positions on the offensive line were unchanged.
That plan went out the window when Veldheer retired rather than report to mandatory minicamp. Suddenly, the pressure was on Wynn and the depth at tackle was questionable again.
Fortunately, the Patriots had a number of draft picks in the 2019 NFL Draft and addressed the overall depth with a pair of intriguing prospects. In the third round at pick number 101 they picked West Virginia tackle Yodny Cajuste and then they grabbed Arkansas guard/center Hjalte Froholdt at pick number 118 in the fourth round.
Cajuste is a big tackle (six-foot-five and 321 pounds) with excellent athleticism. Originally a defensive linemen, he was switched to the offensive line after a redshirt season. Unfortunately, his next two seasons ended due to knee injuries. In the past two seasons before being drafted, Cajuste was a starter and opened eyes with his nasty streak, quick feet (he was a basketball star in high school).
Cajuste has had a slow start to his Patriots career. So far, he has spent training camp on the sidelines as a quad injury has landed him on the NFI (non-football injury) list. Cajuste may end up being one of the many “draft-and-stash” players who end up on injured reserve and contribute during the next season.
Froholdt is tall for an interior line player (six-foot-five) but at 305 pounds he should have plenty of size. Froholdt got national attention after he shutdown number three overall pick Quinnen Williams when Arkansas faced off against Alabama. He can play guard and center and is NFL-ready as a pass blocker. He may need seasoning, but looks to be a great depth pick for the interior offensive line.
Next in Line:
The success of the offensive line rests on the broad shoulders of the Patriots’ 2018 NFL Draft first round pick Isaiah Wynn. Wynn–who played on the right side primarily prior to his Achilles injury last year is first in line to step in for the departed Trent Brown.
Wynn has passed his physical and will not be on the PUP list for camp, but New England is taking him along slowly. He has practiced in a limited fashion since his return and it is likely his reps will be limited throughout the summer just to be cautious. In the first week of camp, Wynn has been working out on the side and not participating with the offense. One week into camp and he is just starting to participate in team drills.
Wynn was available in the draft last year when New England was picking at number 23 overall due to concerns about his size. At six-foot-three and 313 pounds, Wynn seemed to many NFL teams as a guard. However, he was drafted to play tackle in New England due to his athleticism, technique and footwork. After two mammoth left tackles in Brown and Nate Solder, the Patriots seem to be moving towards more athleticism and run-blocking at the position.
Surprise Impact Players:
Beyond left tackle the offensive line the Patriots are set in stone. Right guard Shaq Mason came into the NFL as a mid-round project and is now the fifth-highest paid player on the roster. Mason went from a run-blocker who had little experience as a pass blocker into one of the best guards in the NFL.
David Andrews is a rock at center and despite not the most athleticism or size, gets by on his underrated and deceptive strength and his leverage and technique. After three straight trips to the Super Bowl in the center of the offensive line, Andrews is finally starting to get national recognition for his strong play.
Right guard Joe Thuney has been in the news as he has shown his ability to step in at left tackle with Wynn out. While Thuney–a left tackle at North Carolina State–provides insurance at left tackle but the 2016 third-round draft pick has been a rock at left guard. Thuney is a player to watch in camp for a contract extension as he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon has been fantastic at right tackle–when healthy. Cannon just restructured his contract for 2019 to free up $2.5 million in cap space this year which could be earmarked for his fellow lineman Thuney. Cannon enters 2019 without LaAdrian Waddle (now in Buffalo) as depth behind him.
On the interior offensive line, the Patriots have 2016 sixth-round draft pick Ted Karras, who can fill in at guard and center. Karras has just five starts in three seasons, but he has been able to step in and the line not miss a step. He should be the top back-up–especially with veteran Brian Schwenke a surprise retirement. Karras is likely in for a big raise this offseason and possibly a starting job via free agency.
Behind Karras there is likely just one spot left with James Ferentz and undrafted free agent Tyler Gauthier competing with Cajuste. Ferentz bounced around before spending 2017 and part of 2018 on the practice squad in New England before making the active roster. Gauthier is a strong pass blocker but raw and much more likely to be looking for a practice squad spot and a chance to get back into camp in 2020. Ferentz will need a strong camp to win a roster spot.
At tackle, the Patriots made a surprising move releasing Cole Croston. The Iowa product was expected to compete for the swing tackle role but was let go to bring in undrafted free agent Martez Ivey. Ivey joins undrafted free agent Tyree St. Louis in an uphill battle for a roster spot (although you can hear me argue for St. Louis as the surprise player to make the roster on the Full Press Patriots Podcast via Apple Podcasts).
With Thuney moving back to guard, with Wynn out it has been young veterans Dan Skipper and Cedrick Lang filling in at left tackle in the first week of training camp. Skipper is one of the tallest players in the NFL (just under six-foot-ten) and fell out of the 2017 NFL Draft when a chronic blood condition was found during pre-draft testing. Skipper bounced between practice squads and the roster for the Cowboys, Lions and Broncos before signing to the Patriots’ practice squad for the playoffs last year.
Cedrick Lang was an undrafted free agent in 2016 who bounced around with the Giants and Broncos before spending all of 2017 on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad and was stashed on injured reserve last season by the Vikings. Lang is a project having played basketball in college before converting to tight end for one season. Lang is tall (six-foot-seven) and barely 300 pounds but very athletic.
New England needs to find a quality back-up at tackle and while Thuney can slide over to the left side, Cannon has not played all 16 games in a season since 2014. Lang and Skipper have the inside track to take the roles that have belonged to Waddle and Cameron Fleming the last five years. While Ivey is a little behind coming in later to camp, he and St. Louis will have to open eyes in camp and the preseason games starting next week to earn a role.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and the NFL. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01.