We continue our series of Patriots' post-mini-camp, pre-training camp position-by-position assessments: Current situation, spots available, who's vying for those spots. Today, the offensive line:
No single move this offseason shook Patriots fans the way Nate Solder's departure did. The big left tackle, drafted in the first round by the Patriots in 2011, signed a record deal with the Giants to go from protecting Tom Brady's blind side to protecting Eli Manning's. That meant for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure in New England someone not named Bruce Armstrong, Matt Light or Nate Solder would be the team's primary option at one of the game's premier positions. It was a massive loss in every sense, and finding a viable answer at left tackle remains one of the most important tasks for the Patriots this summer. They've certainly spent time hunting. With their first pick in the first round, they took Georgia left tackle Isaiah Wynn. They also traded a third-round pick to San Francisco for a mountain of a tackle in Trent Brown. Those two look like the favorites for the gig. The rest of the Patriots offensive line seems a little more stable following minicamp. Four of their five starters from 2017 -- Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon are back. Mason has established himself as one of the best in the league at his position and is headed into a contract year. Cannon and Thuney are both working their way through injuries but look like they should be good to go come training camp. Andrews was a captain in 2017 and figures to be back in that role again this year. Behind that core are players like LaAdrian Waddle and Ted Karras (both of whom saw work as starters at different points last season), Cole Croston, James Ferentz, Andrew Jelks and Jason King (all of whom spent time in Dante Scarnecchia's room last year). Newcomers Luke Bowanko, Matt Tobin and Ulrick John will also compete for spots in training camp.
There's a fair number of spots here that are spoken for. Andrews, Mason, Thuney, Wynn and Cannon aren't going anywhere, one would think. If we go off of last year, when the Patriots re-signed Ted Karras just before their season-opener, the Patriots could keep as many as nine offensive linemen out of camp. At the tackle position, it was especially important for the Patriots to have depth; they kept four (Solder, Cannon, Waddle and Cameron Fleming) plus Cole Croston, who has some flexibility to play both guard and tackle. It worked for them. They needed all four of their true tackles to start at different points in the season. One would think tackle depth will be just as important this year with Solder gone -- if not more so. To look at this as a simple math equation, you could view Wynn and Brown as replacements for Solder and Fleming. A two-for-two swap. And it's not out of the realm of possibility that the rest of the group repeats from last year. Now does that mean Brown, Croston, Karras or Waddle are locks in 2018? Not necessarily. But at the moment they're logical bets to make the 53-man roster if the team opts to keep nine.
WHO'S DOING WHAT
OK, so depending on health and fit, the Patriots offensive line may not make as seamless a transition from 2017 to 2018 as the above description suggests. First of all, there are injuries to consider. Marcus Cannon is coming off of a season-ending ankle injury. He was seen at minicamp and OTA practices, though his spring participation was limited. Joe Thuney wasn't spotted at all, save for when he participated in a team-wide event on the eve of minicamp wearing a walking boot. He was reportedly scheduled for foot surgery that shouldn't threaten his season. Still, his status bears watching. Thuney's missed just nine snaps total in his first two pro seasons. If he for some reason isn't ready, the Patriots could tap into Wynn's experience as a guard at the University of Georgia. That's exactly what they did during minicamp when Wynn took over at left guard, leaving Brown to take the bulk of the work at left tackle. The Patriots -- and Scarnecchia, in particular -- have said many times that they'll play their best five linemen, however that combination shakes out. The best right side of the line is fairly predictable. Same goes for center. But that left side will garner plenty of attention in camp. Is Thuney healthy? And if he is, does he win the left guard job outright, leaving Wynn and Brown to battle for the starting spot on the outside? Is there any chance Brown takes the left tackle job by the throat? And if he does, does that mean Wynn and Thuney are battling for starter work at left guard? With a soon-to-be-41-year-old quarterback behind center, one who was sacked 35 times last season, how the left side of Brady's line plays will go a long way in determining the fate their season.