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Patriots 2024 roster reset: OT help is needed, and stakes are high

Patriots 2024 roster reset: OT help is needed, and stakes are high originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Editor's Note: With the beginning of NFL free agency looming on March 13, our Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran is resetting each Patriots position by assessing their 2023 performance, laying out their 2024 contract status and ranking their offseason priority on a scale of 1 to 5.

Curran has covered quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Next up: offensive linemen.

The fire that burned down Bill Belichick’s chance to leave the Patriots on his own terms began on the offensive line. And the path back to average – which is currently a daunting road – begins there as well.

You were thinking quarterback both as the starting point and the path back? We’ll agree to disagree. But the way I see it, if you have a quarterback who’s not tremendously mobile or strong-armed, you need to make sure he’s well-protected. And that didn’t happen last year because of injuries and talent issues.

That set the stage for Mac Jones, who already had sagging confidence after the trials of 2022, to get jumpier and jumpier in the pocket. The complement of skill position players wasn’t up to snuff either. So what you had was a perfect storm of bad. And the offensive numbers bore that out.

The Patriots were tied for last in the league in points per game (13.9), 31st in time of possession, 31st on third down, 32nd on fourth down, 31st in first downs per game, 32nd in interception rate, 30th in passing yards per play, 25th in rushing average and 30th in yards per game.

Second year left guard Cole Strange injured his patella tendon in camp and only played 10 games. Free agent additions Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson were both beset by injury and played one and five games, respectively. Left tackle Trent Brown played 11 games and was either injured, ill or disgruntled for several of them.

That led to a parade of replacements at both tackle spots and left guard and, basically, to an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way most of the year. The need for help at both tackle spots was apparent before the season began but the urgency to staff it just didn’t seem to be there. And the patchwork line got leaky before the season even began.

Offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, in his first year with the team, was laid low by a medical issue during the season, which put more on assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates. In 2022, the Patriots originally planned to have Matt Patricia split time helping on the offensive line with Yates but his time was consumed learning the ropes as offensive coordinator that year.

Stabilizing the offensive line staff was a must-do for the new regime. The new OL coach is Scott Peters. An assistant OL coach with the Browns, Peters worked with some excellent players in Cleveland like Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller and Jack Conklin.

Bright spots from 2023

Center David Andrews had a terrific season in every sense of the word. The Patriots couldn’t have found a better standard-bearer for leadership in the post-Brady era than him. He played all 17 games and – even as the season swirled the drain – he stiff-upper-lipped it all the way through.

Michael Onwenu played 1,044 snaps at right guard in 2022 then shuffled out to right tackle for 656 snaps in 2023 (along with 194 at right guard). The move to tackle – which he also made for the bulk of 2021 – stabilized the position. He’s been an upper-tier offensive lineman since being drafted in the sixth round in 2019.

Rookie Sidy Sow, pressed into duty because of the injuries, performed pretty well for a fourth-round rookie in a chaotic situation.

Disappointments from 2023

Strange, a first-round pick in 2022, was really limited by his knee injury. He tried to play through it without surgery but his overall effectiveness was hampered. Trent Brown unloaded about his unhappiness in his final year in New England when the season ended.

The Patriots cycled through a myriad of tackles as the season went on – Conor McDermott, Vederian Lowe, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and the aforementioned Reiff and Anderson. None were exceptional.

Rookie fifth-rounder Atonio Mafi, who’s transitioning to offense in the NFL, played 17 games making five starts but really wasn’t ready to be out there as much as he was.

Contract statuses for 2024

The big deal is Onwenu. His contract is up. The Patriots have until the end of business Tuesday to franchise him for $21 million.

Free agency begins next week. Onwenu is 26 and Pro Football Focus projected a four-year, $58 million contract with $33.5M guaranteed. Both head coach Jerod Mayo and de facto GM Eliot Wolf expressed interest in keeping Onwenu. One sticky aspect of Onwenu’s deal will be whether he gets tackle money or guard money. Tackles make more.

The 32-year-old Andrews is entering the final year of his deal and is set to make $4.5 million. He’s got a cap hit of $8.425 million and the team could save $6.5 million if it cuts him prior to June 1, but he’s a glue guy. He’d be a good option for an extension if they wanted to knock that cap hit down, though he has considered retirement in the past and last year was a drain on him.

Calvin Anderson has a year left on his deal with a $2.3 million base salary and a $3.595 million cap hit. Strange has two years left on his rookie deal and will make $1.8 million this year in base salary. His cap his is $3.3 million.

McDermott is signed through 2024 with a $1.2 million salary. No other linemen is making more than $1 million.

Offseason priority (Scale of 1-5)

It's a 5. The Patriots need to attack free agency first to address left tackle. They reportedly are expected to make a run at 33-year-old Tyron Smith, who’s been with the Cowboys since 2011. He will be pricey.

Jake Matthews of the Falcons signed a three-year, $55 million extension with Atlanta in 2022 when he was 30. With the cap rising and the Patriots trying to lure Smith from a playoff team to a rebuild, they’ll have to put significant money on the table. He played 13 games last year after playing just 17 in the previous three combined.

If the Patriots wanted to slide Onwenu to left tackle and bring in Bengals right tackle Jonah Williams that could be a move.

But the best chance of staffing left tackle for the long term is in the draft. It’s about 10 guys deep with first- and second-round talent.

With wideout and tackle needs both apparent for the Patriots and a boatload of talented players at both spots, the option of adding picks and addressing both needs should at least give New England pause if the quarterback at No. 3 overall isn’t someone they absolutely, positively can’t live without.