Tag Archives: Patriots offensive line

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer – Offensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 3, 2018 at 8:21 am ET

Health is the Biggest Question Mark

The Patriots head into training camp in just about three weeks now and as we’ve been saying, the competition this year at a number of positions will tell the tale on who goes and who remains. This has been a tumultuous offseason in many different ways. The Patriots lost a lot of key veteran players and all of the off-field hoopla surrounding Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski have been non-stop.

Soon that will all be behind us as the players get back on the field and we start talking about football again. In the next segment of our 2018 Patriots Training Camp primers is the Patriots Offensive Line.

The team lost left tackle Nate Solder this spring as he signed a big money contract with the Giants. He’s protected Tom Brady’s blind side for several years and done it well. Replacing a trusted veteran like Solder who was as good off the field for the team as well as on it.

So, with that in mind who are locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon

The Patriots traded for Brown with the 49ers this spring, giving up a 3rd round draft pick in return. Although he’s played mostly right tackle in the NFL, he says he can play anywhere and the team may move him to left tackle.

Brown is a mammoth-sized human being. Listed at 6’8, 359 pounds, he’s every bit of that and possibly even bigger. But for a very large man, he has surprisingly good footwork. And he’s just 25 years old. Brown got some great kudos from Denver’s Von Miller who said this about the new Patriot:

“He’s the best right tackle in the National Football League,” Miller said of Brown. “And he may even be a top-five tackle, period, in the National Football League. There’s not another tackle who’s that tall, that big and can move the way he moves.”

The team used a 1st round draft pick (#23 overall) on Wynn and although he played left tackle for the Bulldogs, he projects to be a left guard in the NFL. Wynn is short for a tackle, 6’2, 302 but both he and Brown were competing for the left tackle spot but during the spring, they lined up next to one another with Wynn at left guard.

Andrews, Mason, and Cannon have been starters and remain solid pieces who have performed very well. The only questions with the locks revolve around health. Brown and Wynn are coming off of shoulder surgery, while Cannon was placed on IR late last season.

If this unit is the starting five on Week 1 and we believe that they will be, the team should be in a very good position for the offensive line play to start the season. Cannon’s availability physically is the only question. Will he be ready to go? Or will he begin camp on the PUP?

Near Roster Locks: Joe Thuney, LaAdrian Waddle

Thuney missed the spring minicamp with an injury and his spot was taken by Wynn. It will be interesting to note if Thuney is healthy for training camp, he may a fight on his hands to get back his starting left guard spot from the talented rookie from Georgia.

There is a possibility that Thuney will start training camp on the PUP if he’s still not ready to go. Health is the only possibility we’d see with him not making the 53-man roster.

Waddle is a valuable swing tackle who they brought back during free agency despite his getting feelers from other teams. He can play either side and has performed well when called upon. And with the long season that the team faces, he’ll be called on again this year.

On the Bubble: Cole Croston, Jason King, James Ferentz, Andrew Jelks, Ted Karras, Matt Tobin, Luke Bowanko, Ulrick John

The Patriots have several players vying for one or possibly two spots along the OL. Our feeling here is that Croston nails down one of those slots. We penciled him in for first 53-man roster projection. He’s versatile and can fill in at guard or tackle if needed.

But his spot will have to be earned so, the competition factor again will come into play. The team brought back King this spring, so that speaks highly for him. Karras has made the team as a backup and can play guard or center.

What may open the door for one or two more of these players is if Thuney or Cannon or maybe both are placed on PUP to start training camp. But with the demanding and outstanding OL coach Dante Scarnecchia back in the fold for another year, one thing is for certain. He’ll get the very best out of this group.

While as a whole, they have to improve but in pass blocking and in the running game, Coach Scar made it clear back in the spring, “I really like the guys we have here right now,” he said during the OTAs.

So physical questions aside, the Patriots offensive line may be very different, at least on the left side this year but they also have the potential to be very good and better than the 2017 unit as well.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Releasing OT Tony Garcia With Non-Football Injury Designation

Steve Balestrieri
May 11, 2018 at 2:23 pm ET

Last year’s third-round draft pick and the #85 pick overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, Antonio Garcia’s brief stint with the Patriots ends on a sour note today.  The Patriots are releasing the 2nd year player from Troy with a failed non-football injury designation according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

After the Patriots moved up to draft him, he was widely viewed as the Left Tackle of the future behind Nate Solder. But his rookie season was cut short by an illness during training camp. It was later reported that Garcia suffered from blood clots in his lungs. The medication used to treat those caused him to lose a reported 45-50 pounds.

Tony Garcia in action during minicamp last June. (SBalestrieri photo)

However, he was a frequent sight in the Patriots locker room during the season and just a short time ago took to his Instagram account and announced that he was cleared to resume his football career.

Confidence was high when he reported that he was back up to his college playing weight as well and with Solder gone in Free Agency, it was thought he’d be in the mix to be the Patriots starting left tackle in 2018.

Now it must be wondered if the Patriots knew before the draft that Garcia was having medical issues again. They used their top draft pick, #23 on Isaiah Wynn who can play either tackle or guard. Wynn will compete for the starting job with LaAdrian Waddle, recently traded for Trent Brown who the team snagged from the San Francisco 49ers or Cole Croston who spent the 2017 season on the practice squad.

With Garcia being released the only remaining Patriots 2017 NFL Draft players consists of just DE Deatrich Wise and DE/OLB Derek Rivers who also missed the 2017 NFL season after tearing an ACL in joint practices with the Jaguars.

The Patriots Should Bring Back Both LaAdrian Waddle, Cameron Fleming

Steve Balestrieri
February 24, 2018 at 8:00 am ET

Like the old saying goes…you can never have enough tackles or cornerbacks. And the Patriots were indeed fortunate to have the depth they enjoyed in 2017. They started the season with starters Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon in place. They drafted what they hope to be their left tackle of the future with Tony Garcia.

And they had returning swing tackle backups LaAdrian Waddle and Cam Fleming in place. It turned out all of those returning pieces were needed. Cannon was injured and placed on IR. Waddle stepped in and played very well. So well in fact, that they hardly missed a beat. He gave up a grand total of zero sacks on the season and seven QB hits in just under 350 offensive snaps this season.

Then Waddle got hurt and in stepped Fleming. He played very well in the playoffs and against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, he and Solder had very strong games. All four tackles played meaningful snaps during the season. And all, thanks to the superb coaching by Dante Scarnecchia, were very solid.

One need only look at some of the teams that struggled during the regular season, their offensive lines, particularly the tackle play was frequently a major issue. The Patriots not only used four but all of them did a good job overall during the season. They also have Cole Croston and Andrew Jelks who the team has high hopes for in the future as well as Garcia. Garcia, it turned out never took the field, he was on NFI list all season with an illness and we’ve read that he lost upwards of 40 pounds during the season.

Free Agency is Key to Continuity: Now three of those tackles are free agents. Solder, Waddle, and Fleming are all unrestricted free agents this spring. So the depth that they currently enjoy will be severely tested this spring.

We’ve already posted on how we feel about resigning Solder and what it may entail. You can re-read that here: In a perfect world, the Patriots would sign all three and enter the 2018 season intact again across the offensive line.

But they have to deal with the realistic scenario that Solder may either not return to the Patriots or retire this spring. Either could conceivably happen and if it does, then they have some decisions that they’ll be forced to make.

OL Cameron Fleming shares a laugh after practice. (SBalestrieri photo)

While both Waddle and Fleming have played well as spot starters, do they want them playing on the edge for 16+ games as starters? Probably not. Then they’d be forced to look at free agency (not a great crop) or the NFL draft to find his replacement. Why? Garcia is still an unknown commodity. They haven’t seen him play yet. Compounded with his current medical condition, he’s a big question mark right now. And then they’d be looking at how to deal with the talented duo of swing tackle backups.  

Why Waddle and Fleming Will Resign:  The Patriots will probably try to resign both Waddle and Fleming. As last year showed, they were both needed and they each showed themselves valuable enough to play an important if limited role in their success.

Neither probably has a large enough body of work to be seriously considered for a starting position on another team. Would another team tempt either away with enough cash and an opportunity to start? The odds are against it but never say never. As we mentioned above, the tackle play around the league varied, and some teams were just awful.

It probably won’t break the bank with guaranteed money to bring back either. Both have familiarity with the system and coaches and like it here (much to the chagrin of Lane Johnson).

The absence of a bunch of guaranteed money will still allow the trio of Jelks, Croston, and Garcia to develop but leaves the team in a very good position in the event that there are the inevitable injuries.

They may decide on just one and let the other walk,  and deciding that either Jelks, Croston or Garcia is worthy of backup snaps with a chance to start down the road. In which case it would be a difficult decision. While Waddle has played the better of the two, his injury history this season may give the team some pause.

But the key from a Patriots’ perspective begins with getting Solder back in the fold. If they are able to do that, then getting their swing tackles back will be a nice addition. I think it is a no-brainer that they’ll try to bring back at least one and possibly both Waddle and Fleming.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Free Agent Profile Nate Solder

Steve Balestrieri
February 14, 2018 at 8:00 am ET

The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2018 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. Among the veterans looking for a new deal are Nate Solder, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater.  There are other veterans such as Brandon Bolden, James Harrison, LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming who have played significant roles at times and have been limited in others.

While the team has a limited amount of cap space, right now… they should be retooling a few contracts or cutting their ties with some players soon which will create more cap space.

We’ll be doing profiles on each of the free agents in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the key players facing free agency is left tackle Nate Solder.

This is where things begin to get very interesting. Solder, and backup tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are all free agents this spring. That means three out of the four tackles utilized by the team in 2017 could conceivably be gone in 2018.

The Patriots thought they drafted their left tackle of the future last spring when they took Antonio Garcia in the draft. But Garcia never stepped foot on the field and spent the season on the NFI (non-football injury list) as a result of an illness. Garcia is down to only about 260 pounds right now, so not only is there uncertainty about his playing ability because they really don’t know what they have in him yet but medically as well. Will he even be ready to go this summer? That is a lot of question marks pertaining to the guy who must protect Tom Brady’s blind side.

Why Solder Will Return: The Patriots drafted Solder in the first round, (17th overall) in 2011. He’s started 95 of 98 games he’s appeared in and has been pretty durable, playing thru a variety of ailments including testicular cancer a few years ago. He did have a torn bicep in 2015, where he missed the last 11 games.

The Patriots need Solder this upcoming season. They have capable backups in Waddle and Fleming, who can fill in for a game or two, but as starting left tackles? No. And with the dearth of tackles in free agency this season, they know they can’t lowball Solder’s offer too much or risk losing him.  

Solder is still a very good left tackle, there was some thought that he may opt for retirement but he probably has one or possibly two years left before he decides to hang it up. With questions regarding his heir apparent, the team will either have to draft another tackle (a definite possibility) or retain Solder for one more year. Solder has played in four Super Bowls protecting Tom Brady’s blindside and has the big game experience that the team wants. He’s a proven performer and the Patriots will probably be able to retain his services for about the same amount of cash he earned in 2017.

At 30 years old this fall, Solder still has plenty of tread left on the tires.

Why Solder Won’t Return: There are a couple of considerations to think about here. One is Solder was contemplating retirement according to some rumors this fall. His own health issues coupled with the return of cancer to his young son, reportedly had him thinking about possibly hanging it up. If so, that would be the one situation where he’d be adamant about not returning.

As we mentioned above, there is a lack of quality tackles hitting free agency this season. With Solder just about to turn 30 in April, he could command some very decent offers. One team in dire need of a tackle is the Denver Broncos, and Solder played his college football in Colorado. They’d love to steal Solder away from New England.

The Patriots aren’t in a great position salary cap wise, so they won’t be able to overspend for Solder or anyone else this spring unless they start cutting other players or redoing some of the other contracts out there.

Bottom Line: The Patriots would like to have Solder back this season and truth be told, much like Josh McDaniels, family considerations may play a very large part in Nate Solder’s decision to remain in New England or to leave either in free agency or retirement.

With his son going thru another bout of chemotherapy, he and wife may want to keep their family close to the doctors that have treated his son Hudson at Boston Children’s Hospital. They have trust in the staff there and tied to them in the community as well.

He’s a very well respected member of the team by both the players and coaches. The 6’8, the 320-pound left tackle has been very good since entering the NFL. He’s sure to generate plenty of interest from other teams. And a few may opt to throw big money dollars in his direction. There is a stipulation in his contract that he can’t be franchised, so, that option is off the table.

Our feeling here is that he will return to New England or retire. While we may be way off on this one (not like we are batting 1.000 on these things), that is how we see it playing out. I think if the Patriots offer him close to what he earned in 2017, then the chances of Solder returning are much better and seeing him in a Patriots uniform in 2018.

We feel that the chances of him returning to New England are better than 50/50 this summer. Somewhere around 60/40 in favor of him playing at least one more season protecting Brady. Now the question remains, who else (Waddle or Fleming) will the Patriots resign and will Garica be able to resume his football career, which means working himself back up to weight and gaining the 40-50 pounds he lost?

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Five New England Patriots Players to Watch Against the Texans

Steve Balestrieri
September 23, 2017 at 9:42 am ET

Pats Facing a Familiar Foe

The Patriots take on the Texans for the third time in the past year, so this is an opponent that the team knows well. Besides all of the ex-Pats on the Texans’ coaching staff. They met in Week 2 and the Divisional Round of the playoffs last year and conducted some joint practices along with a preseason game this summer. The level of familiarity is there, and that will bring out some of the rivalries we normally see reserved for divisional foes.

The Patriots have had very good success against Houston and have never lost to them in Foxboro. But despite that, this is a team they respect and their defense, especially their front seven is one of the best in the NFL. The Patriots changed the way they practice because of J.J. Watt. That speaks to the level of respect.

If you’ve attended any of the practice sessions at training camp and you see the coaching assistants at the line of scrimmage waving those tennis rackets when Tom Brady and the QBs throw? That is because of Watt. A few years ago before a big game with Houston here, Watt’s ability to knock passes down at the line was well known, so the Patriots installed that little tactic in before that game. If Brady’s passes weren’t right where they needed to be, the long arms with rackets would knock the pass down. It is a training tool that they’ve now kept and use regularly.  So, with that in mind….

Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:

Quarterback Tom Brady: The Patriots QB had a big bounce-back game last week against the Saints throwing for 447 yards and three scores. But on Sunday, he’ll be facing a Texans defense that hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passer in 30 games. Trivia question: Who was the last QB to throw for 300 yards against Houston? (Blake Bortles, Jax QB threw for 331 in October 2015)

He’ll be facing a Texans defense that knows the Patriots well. Romeo Crennel was the DC here for the first three Super Bowls of the Patriots era. Defensive Coordinator Mike Vrabel played an integral part of those teams. Houston head coach Bill O’Brien was the offensive coordinator for the Pats.  So, Houston knows what the Pats like to do, especially in certain downs and situations. Vrabel will try to change his pre-snap looks to something different once the ball is hiked to slow Brady’s thought process down and give his pass rush that extra half-second to get home.

Of course, Brady knows this too, he’ll be ready for the shifting line just before the snap, to the secondary members shifting at the snap. It all will come down to execution. Brady will have all his WRs back at his disposal this week (sans Julian Edelman). But in this one, I’m looking for the running backs to get a lot of looks in the passing game.

In the playoff game in January, Brady was just 18-38 for 287 yards with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. The Patriots weren’t good (5-14 only 36 percent) on third down. And this was facing a Texans defense without Watt. He’ll have to be on top of his game Sunday.

Safety Devin McCourty: The Patriots defensive philosophy has always been to try to take away their opponent’s best weapon and force them to beat you in other ways. For the Texans, whose WRs and TEs have been banged up, they’ll once again rely on DeAndre Hopkins in the passing game.

Hopkins has been targeted 29 times in the first two games, nearly half of the Texans 60 pass attempts. The Patriots know this and know who the priority to stop is. One of the issues they’ve had on defense thus far has been the giving up on big plays, something they were excellent at stopping a year ago. The Texans are limited offensively and forcing them to work their way down the field to score is the way to force their rookie QB (DeShaun Watson) into making mistakes.

McCourty is the QB of the secondary. He’s in charge of making sure those communications issues don’t happen and he’ll be the last line of defense in stopping Hopkins from ringing up big plays. The team will use a corner underneath and bracket him over the top. McCourty will be that last line of defense.

Wide Receivers Brandin Cooks/Danny Amendola:  Double dipping here. The new Patriots wide receiver (Cooks) has been good but not great yet this season. By his own account, the speedster has been disappointing as he wants to be a dominant part of the offense. While he’s on pace for a 1000 yard season, he knows he’s capable of more.

This is the reason the Patriots got him this spring. Teams that will try to clog the middle of the field to take away the short/intermediate passes and dare them to throw deep. Cooks has the speed to make them pay. With top corner Jonathan Joseph, not 100 percent physically and Kevin Johnson out expect Brady and the Patriots to test the defense deep. Cooks may be in-line for his first big day offensively.

Amendola returns from the concussion protocol and will be the quick slot target underneath that they’ll need Sunday to counter the pass rush of the Texans. Edelman had a big game against Houston in the playoffs and Brady will need Amendola to get those short, move-the-sticks catches underneath to keep drives alive.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy: The Patriots linebacker has taken on different roles since arriving here from Detroit last season. He’s been asked to do a little bit of everything. This week, he may get placed on the running backs out of the backfield. Lamar Miller is a guy the Patriots know well having faced him in both Miami and in Houston. He’s a valuable guy running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. He, D’Onta Foreman and possibly Tyler Ervin will present some challenges for Watson to target underneath.

Van Noy may be used to slow down the backs out of the backfield or to help keep Watson in the pocket this week. It will be an on-going chess match to see how the defense aligns to try to keep Houston’s offense in check this week. Van Noy will play a key part of this.

Offensive Line: We could have picked Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon (if he even plays) as the Texans can bring the heat from the edges. But having Watt healthy this time, and knowing how Houston can move him around, this will need to be a collective effort by Dante Scarnecchia’s crew this week.

In the playoff game in January, the Texans brought their pressure up the middle against Center David Andrews and it worked very well, they kept Brady off-balance all game long and completed less than 50 percent of his passes. They could do this again, or attack off the right side where either Cannon will be less than 100 percent or target his replacement.

The Texans to win this game will need a big defensive effort and probably generate some turnovers as well. They can’t get into a shootout with the Patriots given their lack of weapons on offense right now. Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus have yet to register a sack this season. They’d like nothing better than to break out in a big game against Brady. The offensive line play will be key this week for New England to win.

Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as well have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer Offensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 16, 2017 at 12:00 pm ET

Continuity and Preparing for 2018 are Keys

The Patriots head into training camp in less than two weeks and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Offensive Line position.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation.

So we’re going to take a look at the Patriots Offensive Line. One of the keys to the 2016 success and part of the struggle down the stretch in 2015 had to do with continuity. The Patriots five starters played together nearly wire-to-wire last year and their performance showed. In 2015 injuries decimated the unit and the team couldn’t get any kind of cohesiveness going.

The good news is that five starters return as well as some of their top backups. But the team didn’t neglect their offensive line this offseason. With an eye to the future, they drafted two tackles in the 2017 NFL Draft, Tony Garcia, and Connor McDermott. Garcia in particular looks to have been drafted with 2018 and beyond in mind.

Although the team lost RT Sebastian Vollmer to retirement this spring, he missed the entire 2016 season with an injury and with the ascendance of Marcus Cannon, the team looks to be in good shape there.
So, with that in mind who is locked in and who’s on the bubble?

Roster Locks: Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Tony Garcia
The starting five returns, seem to be healthy and are locked on the roster this summer. Solder returned from IR in 2015 to play very solidly last year. He’s in the last year of his contract and with that in mind, the team has drafted two possible replacements.

Moving up and using multiple picks to draft Garcia, he’s obviously someone who Dante Scarnecchia feels can be a left tackle of the future. With Solder in place for at least 2017, there is no pressure on Garcia to produce early. This will be a red-shirt type of year for him to learn the system and develop under the tutelage of Coach Scar.

Cannon came out of the doghouse to play very well in 2016. Guards Mason and Thuney are young and physical and should only improve. Andrews is an undersized but smart center and he’s not going anywhere.

Unless there is an injury somewhere, I see no changes happening along the starting lineup for the Patriots offensive line in 2017.

Near Roster Locks: Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
Last season both Fleming and Karras were the top backups for the tackles and the interior line last year. They both have the inside track for the top backup positions again as well. Karras has the versatility to play either guard or back-up the center David Andrews. He’s not the most athletic guy but he’s physical and tough.

Fleming was the swing tackle last year and will be trying to hold off the rookies Garcia and McDermott from taking that job away from him. He’s versatile and can fill in at either left or right tackle, something that is easier said than done.

On the Bubble: LaAdrian Waddle, Conor McDermott, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks, Max Rich, Jamil Douglas, Chase Farris, Jason King, James Ferentz
The Patriots have plenty of depth at the backup positions and these players are likely to be fighting for reps in training camp and a most likely only one or two slots.

Waddle has been a backup tackle and a blocking tight end but with the depth, at that position, he’ll be pushed hard for a roster spot. McDermott is another intriguing prospect. He’s a guy that the Patriots used a pair of picks to get, albeit in the sixth round of the draft. Would he pass thru waivers if the team tries to stash him on the practice squad? That would seem to be his best bet to make the roster, at least this summer, unless the inevitable injuries occur.

With a lot of bodies in camp, this will be an intriguing group to watch. They’ll have the entire preseason to make a case for sticking, so staying healthy and on the field, will be of primary importance.

Our next primer will have the Patriots defensive line… stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Offensive Line Has Been Excellent Thus Far in 2016

Steve Balestrieri
September 27, 2016 at 12:00 pm ET

Solid Play, Return of Scarnecchia, Keys to Fast Start

The Patriots early season success can be attributed to a number of different factors. Not the least of which is the coaching of Bill Belichick, but the play of the offense line has to be considered one of the pleasant surprises thus far in 2016.

With the suspension of Tom Brady, the biggest question this summer was, “How will the Patriots fare in the first quarter of the season?” The answer thus far has been, just fine. The team is off to a 3-0 start and like many had envisioned prior to the start of the year, in no large part to the offense leaning on the running game.

An even bigger question to me than how would the backup quarterbacks play this season, was how would the offensive line handle being tasked with handling the running game. Especially when the opponent knew the Patriots were going to run. The offensive line a year ago was injury ravaged, of that there is no doubt about that. But their level of play overall was poor and Brady was nearly decapitated at times out there a year ago.

But the return of Dante Scarnecchia, the return to health of Nate Solder and the addition of Joe Thuney has been a panacea for the Patriots offensive line. Thru three games the Patriots lead the NFL in rushing and the play of the offensive has been markedly improved. The interior three of center David Andrews, and guards Shaq Mason and Thuney are perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise as they’re playing very strong and get better as the game goes along.

Joe Thuney wants to know “What are Pink Stripes?” Thuney (62) and David Andrews (60) have been solid this year.

LeGarrette Blount leads the NFL in rushing attempts (75), rushing yards (298), rushing yards per game (99.3) & is tied for the lead in rush touchdowns (4).

“There were a lot of plays — too many plays — last year where it didn’t matter who the back was, we just couldn’t get him started, couldn’t get him into any kind of space, couldn’t let the back build up any kind of momentum,” Bill Belichick said in a conference call with the media after the Miami game.

“I think all our backs have the ability to make yards. They’ve all been productive. We’ve seen it in the preseason, we’ve seen it through the years with some of these guys, depending on which guy you want to talk about, but we had to give him a chance,” he added. “You’ve got to give them a chance to have some type of opportunity to operate with some space or momentum, just something. No back can gain yardage when there’s just no place to run. I don’t care how good the guy is.”

Belichick’s comments are telling because they go against the popular notion that Blount dances too much when he gets the ball. What is he, or any other back supposed to do when there is nowhere to run. We’ve all seen, too often that the Patriots’ backs getting hit as soon as they receive the handoff, often deep in the backfield. That isn’t the running backs’ fault.

Blount is on pace for nearly 1600 yards rushing in 2016. While the offense will change once Brady returns from his league imposed vacation, one can’t say enough about the performance and workload that was placed on his shoulders. And he’s come through in the clutch for the team, especially in the fourth quarter as he’s been a closer for the team.

“We’ve always had a lot of confidence in LeGarrette,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He has had a lot of big games here for us and helped us win a lot of games, and he doesn’t just carry the ball, he did some things in terms of protection. He helped us on the edge with some of their good pass rushers. LG is always ready to go, practices hard… prepares hard for each week, and whatever we ask of him he embraces his role on our team.”

Two other additions that can’t be overlooked this season has been the play in the running game of Martellus Bennett and James Develin. Bennett has always been known as an excellent run blocking tight end, and it is an area that he has always prided himself in. He and Rob Gronkowski give the Patriots the option of nearly having two extra tackles in the running game. They can also go out on pass routes and threaten the seams. Once Gronkowski’s hamstring is healthy, he and Bennett will be a tough duo to stop.

Develin’s value to the running game can’t be overstated. He was really missed a year ago and he is a devastating blocker as a fullback as he leads the way for the backs to follow in the running game. A look at some of Blount’s big runs this season usually entail him following Develin thru the hole and into the second level of the defense.

The pass blocking of the offensive line has been better, not great but better this year. Granted they aren’t passing on every down, which actually hurt their level of play when teams could just pin their ears back and come after Brady.

They’ll face another tough test in the Buffalo Bills defense this week. The Bills sacked Carson Palmer five times and picked him off four more on Sunday. But dedicating themselves to being able to run the ball and sticking with it has been a feather in the cap of Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels thus far this season. McDaniels creative play-calling and game planning has kept opposing defenses on their toes. And he’s able to do that due to their ability to run the ball effectively in 2016.

Check back with us later in the week as we’ll break down the key matchups for the game right here on PatsFans.com.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Spotlight is Now On Cannon, Scarnecchia

Steve Balestrieri
August 23, 2016 at 7:27 am ET

Marcus Cannon has been a lightning rod for criticism the past few years from Patriots fans and members of the media. The 2016 season won’t be any different. Whether you’re talking about his contract or that awful AFC Championship Game in Denver, folks tend to expect the worst when it comes to the 6th year tackle from TCU. And one of the things the team should have addressed this spring was finding a right tackle of the future. But they didn’t.

With the news that Sebastian Vollmer is going to go on IR for a myriad of shoulder and hip issues, shouldn’t be surprising. Vollmer is a good, tough right tackle who has been banged up with a variety of back and knee woes for quite a while now. And at age 32, those don’t get better with big interior linemen. The writing was on the wall with Seabass and now with him being a free agent in 2017, he’s probably going to be moving on next year regardless if he’s able to come back this season or not.

Marcus-Cannon

We’re not going to go overboard and jump on Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio the way some do around the Boston area and with good reason. Show me another team that consistently fields a team that wins double-digit games every season in the NFL and every season takes a team deep into the playoffs.

It doesn’t exist outside of Foxboro and the two guys at the helm always seem to find a great mix of players that buy in, work hard, and invariably get the job done. It is always easy to sit up in the cheap seats and point out flaws in what went wrong after the fact.

However, this is one of those times that they should have perhaps taken a look at where they’ve addressed their offensive line in the past few years and perhaps moved their focus to the outside. In the past three years, the team added centers, Bryan Stork and David Andrews. At guard, a year ago, they drafted Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson. This season, the Patriots traded for guard Jonathan Cooper then drafted guards Joe Thuney and Ted Karras.

So we get that the offensive line was beaten up last year and that former coach Dave DeGuglielmo may not have been able to reach the players that Dante Scarnecchia had. That’s why Scar was brought back into the fold and was tasked with re-energizing this unit in 2016 so that we don’t witness a retake of the debacle that Tom Brady’s protection was down the stretch a year ago.

Scarnecchia and Belichick have always loved Cannon, seeing the potential that many of us don’t see on a day-to-day basis. Belichick in his Monday press conference went into detail praising Cannon’s work in the Chicago preseason game. To his credit, Cannon has been good this summer. Especially in the running game where he’s been able to get a consistent push up front and has pancaked quite a few would-be tacklers.

He’s moved better as well in pass protection, part of it Cannon credits to slimming down, eating right and working on his quickness. When he was drafted by the team in the 5th round of the 2011 draft, he tipped the scales at 358 pounds. He’s now listed at 335. Also a year ago, he was dealing with a toe issue which definitely would affect his mobility. But given the injury situation to the team a year ago, anyone that could walk was going to play.

Cannon’s biggest knock has been consistency. He’s played well in stretches but hasn’t been able to put anything together for any length of time. Scarnecchia, who has always been in his corner will go about trying to change that aspect of his game. With Vollmer out, for perhaps the entire season, the job is his now as it has been since Day 1 of spring OTAs and minicamp.

Scarnecchia can bring out the best on anyone, that’s why he’s been in the league for so long. He’ll bring out the good in Cannon. Because Cannon can be a good tackle in the NFL. But the Patriots, who have been on top of the heap for more than a decade don’t deal in “good” when protecting the best QB in the game.

They should have been looking for better than good this spring. Ultimately, we’ll learn how they fare once the games begin in earnest. Because the real tests for the offensive line and Cannon will be not in the preseason but once the team hits the desert of Arizona.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Get More Bad Injury News, Sebastian Vollmer Headed to IR

Steve Balestrieri
August 21, 2016 at 2:57 pm ET

Well, a quiet Sunday afternoon suddenly isn’t. The Patriots got a double whammy on Sunday when they learned to Dion Lewis needs another surgery and will be out an additional 8-10 weeks, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is likely headed to IR for a bad hip as well as a balky shoulder. Vollmer has been on PUP since training camp began.  The news was first reported by Jim McBride of the Boston Globe.

Guard Shaq Mason it has been reported missed the Chicago Bears preseason game with a broken hand. Mason was one of the team’s most reliable offensive linemen in 2015.

Vollmer could conceivably still play in 2016. If the Patriots decide to place Vollmer on the IR, under the new rules, he could return later in the season. Each team is only allowed one such move per year and they don’t have to designate which player will return as in the past. We had Vollmer as starting the season on PUP in our latest roster projection but now it looks like he could be gone for the entire year.

Now Marcus Cannon, who has been getting most of the starting reps during training camp will begin the season as the team’s starting right tackle opposite of Nate Solder. We posted numerous times this spring that the team needed to address the RT of the future. The Patriots, however, opted to stand pat and this is one decision that may come back to haunt them.

They also have Cameron Fleming, La Adrian Waddle and Keavon Milton as backups.

Patriots Training Camp Primer – Offensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 18, 2016 at 6:00 am ET

Return of Scarnecchia and Health Two Biggest Issues

The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Offensive Line.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.

So next on deck are the big bodies on the Offensive Line. The team is banking heavily on the return of positional coach Dante Scarnecchia who was retired for two years. He’s a tough taskmaster who demands the most from his charges. The health of this group is a big question mark; injuries ravaged them and the protection of QB Tom Brady steadily got worse as the season progressed.

So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?


Dante Scarnecchia returns to be the Pats OL coach after he retired two years ago. (USA TODAY Images)

Roster Locks: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Jonathan Cooper
Health is the key here, Solder was lost in Dallas Week 5 for the season with a torn bicep. Vollmer battled injuries throughout the campaign and has knee and back issues. But if both are healthy they’ll be your starting tackles. One would have thought that the tackle position would have been addressed in either free agency and the draft but it was not. We’ll see how that turns out later this year.

The Pats didn’t draft Thuney to sit on the pine, and with Mason, Jackson and Kline MIA this spring, he took the starting reps at left guard whenever Brady or Garoppolo was on the field. He even took a few at center. Mason finally appeared in the last spring workout and had 10 starts as a rookie. Coming from the running game of Georgia Tech, he’s an excellent drive blocker but as one would expect, had issues with his pass blocking.  Andrews, who started all the games early last season and played fairly well is undersized but tough. In a surprise move, he was getting the starting reps over Bryan Stork this spring…something to keep an eye on.

Cooper was a top draft pick for the Cardinals before injuries derailed his career there. With the aforementioned players out this spring, he got the starter’s reps at right guard. The Pats are hoping that Scarnecchia can rekindle his professional career.


Nate Solder returns after going on IR after Week 5 in 2015. (USA TODAY Images)

Near Roster Locks: Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle
Stork, who played so well as a rookie at center, missed the first six weeks of the season on IR-Designated to Return and struggled as he had health issues of his own last year. Stork even played at right tackle against the Giants as Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon struggled. It will be interesting to watch the competition between Stork and Andrews this summer. With Thuney providing added insurance, the pivot position should be in good shape.

Cannon, is the ultimate head scratcher for this team, but Bill Belichick and Scarnecchia love this kid.  He was ineffective last season when pressed into starting duty and was just abused in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. As the saying goes, we’ll see how it plays out on the field.

Waddle has the opportunity to seize the swing tackle position. He too was hurt against the Cowboys and his shoulder injury sidelined him. But the Patriots gave him a two-year contract this offseason and he also has the capability to be an extra blocking tight end in short yardage.

On the Bubble: Tre’ Jackson, Josh Kline, Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
Jackson was a rookie draft pick (4th Rd, 111th overall), a year ago and had nine starts while appearing in 13 games. Prior to coming out in the 2015 NFL Draft, he had knee issues and he missed time with those during the season as well as missing both playoff games. If he’s healthy he’ll compete for the right guard spot, where he saw all of his action a year ago. But he missed all of the spring, so his status will bear watching once training camp begins.

Kline is a guy who the Patriots traditionally love, an undersized but tough player. He too missed all of the spring. With the additions of Thuney and Cooper along the interior of the line, he may find himself on the outside looking in.

Fleming flopped as a swing tackle a year ago, like Cannon was ineffective when pressed into service. But the last offseason, the Patriots fiddled with the idea of moving him to guard. He was training to do just that, cutting down on his weight a bit and improving his quickness. We saw the video of his workouts last spring and it seemed he was destined to move inside.

But the team drafted Mason and Jackson last spring and Fleming went back outside. The results were not good. Perhaps with a full offseason with Scarnecchia, Fleming can get his game back together. The swing tackle position will again go thru Cannon, Waddle and Fleming.

Karras is a tough kid that has a lot of upper body strength, completing 32 reps on the bench press at his Pro Day this spring. The 6th round draft pick has an NFL pedigree and is a good pass protector but isn’t very athletic and may find himself a practice squad candidate unless he can shine in limited opportunities.

Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Chris Barker, Keavon Milton
Both of these players have been let go in the past and face long odds of making the roster out of training camp.

Barker was originally claimed off of waivers from the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 season and appeared in four games. During the 2014 season, he split time between the practice squad and the active roster and appeared in two games. Last season he was signed to the active roster for the Week 10 game against the Giants before being released and signed back to the practice squad.

Milton was a UDFA in 2013 and was signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was among the final cuts of the Saints and was signed by the Browns and appeared in eight games with no starts that season. He then was released by the Browns at the end of training camp in 2014 and signed to Seattle’s practice squad. Released in September 2015 he was signed by the Patriots to their practice squad in November. The 6’4, 320-pound Milton was a blocking tight end at Louisiana-Monroe who made the transition to tackle

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcast on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.