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Patriots' top left tackle option is still adjusting to new position

Patriots' top left tackle option is still adjusting to new position originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- While media and fans are justly hyper-focused on new Patriots quarterback Drake Maye at the moment, there is another spot that is worthy of almost as much attention.

The left tackle spot ultimately could be one of the key factors in determining when and how well Maye plays as a rookie. And it's still a massive roster-building question mark.

During Monday's OTA workout, veteran Chukwuma Okorafor was the first lineman up to protect veteran quarterback Jacoby Brissett's blind side. Then came Vederian Lowe. Rookie third-rounder Caedan Wallace filled in on the left side as well.

None are established starters for coach Jerod Mayo at that all-important position. Lowe had a roller-coaster 2023 with the Patriots at tackle, pushed into duty at times due to injury. Wallace accumulated 40 starts at right tackle for Penn State over his collegiate career and is trying to flip to the other side.

Okorafor is a fascinating case as the apparent top choice at left tackle since he has six years of NFL experience under his belt at right tackle. While speaking with reporters following Monday's practice, the former Pittsburgh Steeler acknowledged the challenge he faces trying to get accustomed to the other side of the line.

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"I played right my whole time in Pitt," he said. "It's obviously new. I'm trying to learn left as of now. ... I've taken every single snap that I've taken in the last six years at right.

"It's learning how to set and use my hands. That kind of stuff. This is the first day to actually go against someone live, somewhat live. It's obviously not real football yet. We don't even have the pads on yet. It's just gonna take some time."

Okorafor is confident, though, that with time he'll be able to handle the responsibilities his new team throws his way.

"I've been in the NFL for a while now," he said. "If I knew I couldn't do it, I wouldn't have chosen to do it. It will take time, but I know who I am and what I can do."

There are a handful of veteran options available to the Patriots to handle left tackle should they feel as though what they have on the roster isn't enough.

Donovan Smith started for Kansas City in last year's Super Bowl, and he has nine years of experience as a starter at left tackle for the Bucs and Chiefs. He remains a free agent, and the Patriots were deemed the "best fit" for Smith's services by ESPN's Matt Bowen. Per Bowen, Smith had a pass-block win rate of almost 91 percent last year, allowing six sacks in 438 pass-block reps.

Charles Leno Jr. played 880 snaps at left tackle last season for the Commanders yet remains a free agent as well. Since 2014, he's started 141 games at left tackle. He went a stretch of seven seasons with the Bears and Commanders showing remarkable durability by not missing a single start. Per Pro Football Focus, Leno had the 16th-best pass-blocking grade among all tackles in 2023.

There's a third veteran option with whom Patriots de facto general manager Eliot Wolf would be very familiar.

Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, former Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari has been deemed "on schedule" for a return to the field in 2024 by Dr. Brian Cole, chairman of orthopedics at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Bakhtiari has played just 13 games in the last three seasons -- with just one game played in 2023 -- and has dealt with knee issues for years. But if the free agent checks out medically? Perhaps Wolf, a former Packers front-office executive, would be open to a reunion with the five-time All-Pro.

The Patriots are experimenting at one of the game's most important positions for now. And perhaps that experiment will yield positive results. But if Wolf, Mayo and the rest of the Patriots staff have questions as to how their left tackles will pan out, they have other options. And they have more cap space available to them than any team in football.

If Maye is going to play in Year 1, that left tackle spot is one they're going to want to get solved sooner rather than later.