Patriots Nation, you are about to embark on a new dawn, and a new day.
Past are the days of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Stephen Gostkowski. The first wave of free agency has stripped the New England cupboard of roster stalwarts like Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Nate Ebner. Longtime Specials Teams Coordinator Joe Judge has become the head coach of the New York Giants.
Lean times ahead in Foxboro? …Not so fast.
The Patriots might just look to the ‘line’ to reload in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft.
It might not be the most aesthetically-pleasing selection, but, as the old saying goes, it’s got teeth. It has been said that Super Bowl championships are won on the lines. The New England Patriots know this better than anyone. Since taking the helm in 1999, head coach Bill Belichick has prioritized consistency, and even excellence, along both the offensive and defensive lines. However, in 2019, the Patriots struggled to find both consistency and productivity on the offensive line. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn spent much of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon has subpar seasons by their standards. Last but certainly not least, starting center and team captain David Andrews was sidelines for the season after suffering blood clots in his lungs.
One of the few bright spots along the offensive line was left guard Joe Thuney. His stellar performance in 2019 earned him second-team All Pro honors. It also seemed to ensure that he would be in line for a substantial pay day, as one of the NFL’s most sought-after free agents. However, the Patriots had different plans. To the surprise of many, the Pats placed the franchise tag on Thuney; providing him with a $14.7 million salary, as well as protecting him from hitting the free-agent market.
Though he is technically under contract for the 2020 season, recent negotiations between Thuney and the Patriots on a potential extension have yielded little-to-no progress. In fact, Thuney has been the subject of several trade rumors in advance of the commencement of the 2020 NFL Draft on Thursday.
So, the question beckons. If the Patriots trade Joe Thuney, who might be a potential suitor to fill his cleats?
The answer is Cesar Ruiz, Offensive Lineman, University of Michigan.
Although Ruiz is projected as a Center (his natural position,) he is one of the most versatile linemen in the NFL Draft class of 2020. While he has been projected as a low as a mid-rounder, Ruiz has made a tremendous rise. In fact, a selection in the first round is likely to come to fruition. It is also viable that the Patriots might just be the team to give him that chance.
With Thuney’s days in New England seemingly numbered, New England will need to fill a void at left guard. Ruiz has center/guard flexibility that could allow him to potentially fill the team’s need there right away. A standout at the University of Michigan, enters the NFL after starting 31 games for the Wolverines with 26 of those coming at center, and five at right guard. He brings a blend of size, power, mobility and technique, which allows him to be an impact player on any interior spot along the offensive line at the next level. In addition to his massive size, Ruiz displays outstanding mobility. He is also highly-effective working both laterally, and in space. His versatility extends beyond just the ability to play any spot along the interior. Ruiz also has the attributes needed to thrive in both gap and zone blocking run schemes; two areas in which the Patriots struggled in 2019.
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Still, it is reasonable to question why the Patriots should use such a high draft capital on a player whose natural position is already filled by a team capitan. Especially, when confiding the most recent reports that categorize David Andrews’ progress as ‘much improved.’ The implication is that Andrews could be ready for the start of the 2020 season. However, be mindful that recovering from blood clots in the lungs is a bit more complicated than the recovery from a muscle or bone injury requiring surgical repair. While it is certainly possible for Andrews to both recover and continue a long, productive career, any setback could leave the Pats with a large void on the offensive line. Ruiz would fill that deficit quite nicely.
Although he would project as a solid, logistical fit in New England, Ruiz possesses the character and leadership skills to thrive in the Patriots system. In 2020, these types of intangibles are needed perhaps now, more than ever. For the better part of three decades, the Pats’ success on the offensive line has been due largely in part to the coaching of Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia, a legend among the coaching ranks, announced his retirement in late January. Though he leaves an indelible mark on the team, particularly the line which he gallantly guided for generations, Scarnecchia’s optimism will be sorely missed.
Obviously, a concession is made that expecting a rookie to be a major source of stability on an NFL line is a bit lofty, and possibly unfair. However, those who know Ruiz believe that he has the ability to do just that. While speaking to the media at the NFL Combine, his former Michigan teammate, and quarterback Shea Patterson had the highest praise for Ruiz’s level of preparation, both on and off the field. Patterson was a senior quarterback at IMG Academy when Ruiz, a junior, was his center. They reunited for two seasons with the Wolverines after Patterson transferred from Ole Miss.
“Remembering him as a junior snapping me the ball when I was a senior and then we played two years at Michigan, it’s just surreal,” Patterson said. “He’s very smart. He dealt with a lot of the protection IDs and made a lot of the run points. He’s big, he’s athletic and can move. He’s fast. He’s strong. He’s even more determined and a confident guy. His positive energy kinda wears off on a lot of the guys. He’s the type of guy that you can build a team around and provide lock down protection for a quarterback.”
Ruiz’s ability to protect and nurture a quarterback is particularly relevant for the New England Patriots. It is also the most valid reason for the Patriots choosing to invest such high draft capital to secure his services. In 2020,the Pats will notably name a new starting quarterback for the first time in 20 years. Whether it be Jarrett Stidham, or an NFL draftee, the Pats will need solidarity on the offensive line to provide protection and guidance. Admittedly, he does have room to grow with some timing elements in pass protection. He could also he could benefit from dropping some bad weight on his frame. However, if facing the possible departures of both Thuney and Cannon (who is rumored to be an eventual salary cap casualty) Ruiz projects to be the type of generational talent that could anchor the Patriots offensive line for many years to come.
At the end of the day, this is just one person’s opinion. Yet, do not be surprised if the New England Patriots choose to ‘hold the line’ with their first selection at pick 23 in the 2020 NFL Draft. Surprise aside, do not be disappointed.
-Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and Columnist for Full Press Coverage. He covers the New England Patriots and provides NFL editorial content. He is also the host of the Locked On Patriots podcast. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC