Piecing together the puzzle of the Patriots' offensive line

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots are in a very interesting spot when it comes to their offensive line, which despite battling injuries was once again one of the best in football in 2020. Between this offseason and next, they could potentially need to replace as many as four starters up front. 

Left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews are both pending free agents. Meanwhile, left tackle Isaiah Wynn’s fifth-year team option is on the table this spring - his current contract runs through the end of 2021. There’s also right tackle Marcus Cannon, who is coming off an opt-out year and will be 33-years-old by the time training camp starts. The only starting lineman under long-term team control is 27-year-old Shaq Mason, who is on a team-friendly deal through the end of the 2023 season. 

While that sounds like a massive undertaking, the Patriots are actually in relatively good position to fill in the holes. The question is, how do they go about doing it?

Two huge keys to answering those questions will be 2020 sixth-round picks Michael Onwenu and Justin Herron. In their debut seasons, both proved to be not only talented but versatile as well, making them a perfect fit for a unit about to go through some reshuffling.

Dec 6, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (97) battler New England Patriots offensive tackle Mike Onwenu (71) at the line during the third quarter at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, Onwenu played both guard spots before moving out to right tackle full-time to finish the season. Despite not having played the position since high school, he more than held his own. 

Herron was used as a swing tackle, playing the left and right sides. While not quite on Onwenu’s level currently, he showed he can be an NFL-caliber lineman as well. At the very least, he can be a LaAdrian Waddle-type reliable third tackle, with the potential to become an everyday starter.

So how do those two fit into the puzzle? The Patriots have the cap space to post competitive offers to both Andrews and Thuney if they so choose. If they were to both come back, Onwenu and Herron become the sixth and seventh linemen, with Onwenu likely replacing Cannon when the time comes, and Herron getting a shot at left tackle if Isaiah Wynn isn’t signed long-term.

However, that may not be maximizing their skill sets, especially when it comes to Onwenu who is a true guard. The more efficient approach may be to let Thuney walk instead of paying him the near $15 million per year contract he’s likely in line for. Slide Onwenu in at left guard, with Herron becoming the swing tackle and eventual replacement for either Wynn or Cannon, depending on how things go. 

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 13: Cam Newton #1 of the New England Patriots stands under center during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 13: Cam Newton #1 of the New England Patriots stands under center during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

There’s more pieces to this puzzle as well. Jermaine Eluemunor started the year strong, and his ability to play four spots up front shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s a pending free agent, and a rough end to the season means he could be back on short money.

We also can’t forget about 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste, who has spent his first two NFL seasons on IR. The team clearly saw something in him during his pre-draft process, and assuming he stays healthy he’ll compete for a roster spot in 2021.

Then there’s the NFL Draft. Bill Belichick has taken at least one offensive lineman every year since 2013, with multiple lineman picked in all but one of those drafts (2018). This draft doesn’t seem like it would be any different. 

So yes, there’s a lot going on with the Patriots offensive line this offseason. But while that would be a massive undertaking for most teams, Bill Belichick has his team prepared. It’s just about putting the right pieces in the right places to maximize potential.

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Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].