Friday, May 20, 2016

Balance, Health Key For Patriots' Offensive Line; Thuney's Versatility Boon For Unit

Thuney is a five-position mercenary, which makes him very valuable to Scarnecchia's offensive line.
Jonathan Cooper is a young, tough guard - which makes him fit right in with the interior of the New England Patriots' offensive line.

He missed his entire rookie season after fracturing his fibula in a preseason game, suffered a knee issue in his sophomore preseason that required weekly draining of fluid, along with a painful turf toe injury which combined forced him to miss almost all of the 2014 season, making his first career start in week 14...

...which lasted all of two games until he fractured a bone in his wrist, carrying over into the 2015 season, but was able to play the first nine games of the year before the knee problem arose again and ruined the rest of the season.

So when New England pulled off the trade to get rid of defensive end Chandler Jones and his enormous cap hit, the Cardinals sweetened the deal when they packaged Cooper in with a second round draft pick, essentially giving up on the former number seven overall draft pick in 2012 after just an eleven game body of work, Arizona coach Bruce Ariens stating that Cooper was "tough and athletic, just continuing to grow" but qualifying his actions by adding, "We don't have time for growth."

Perhaps that's the reason why, in a nutshell, the Patriots find themselves perennial favorites and in championship game after championship game while other teams' fortunes have them perpetually climbing the ladder - they take other people's projects that they have no time to develop and figures out ways for them to contribute while training them to be football players.

Many players are drafted out of college who are great athletes, but weren't afforded the luxury of perfecting their craft, instead are plugged into a system, are trained to perform in that system, and find that when they arrive in the NFL, their learning curve is protracted because they were essentially pawns that lined the coffers of their respective school's athletic department, with really no regard to their future other than, of course, the college degree they earn out of it.

Many NFL teams behave in that manner as well, especially the ones whose owners put tremendous amount of pressure on their coaching staffs to win now, so they draft the kids like Cooper who fit a particular style in college but struggled in the pros and were given up on because teams don't have the time to develop an imperfect being.

That trail of thought ends at the lighthouse.

This is what separates the Patriots from all other teams and Bill Belichick from all other general managers, the philosophy that begs for ambiguity, the one that seeks to accentuate a player's strength. All teams and coaches and general managers do this to some extent, but there has not ever been a football person who has taken other teams' cast-offs and improved his team by integrating their talent into his collective...

...kind of like a Borg approach - for those who dig Star Trek, you know that the alien species known as the Borg are a bunch of assimilated members of many different species, and who have prosthetic, mechanical limbs and other various body parts implanted in place of their severed original members, making them part of a collective "hive", each assimilated being adding his or her unique distinctiveness as a way of improving the whole.

It's whacked for sure, but it makes sense in a communal degree.  But not even Belichick has balls big enough go full cyborg on the NFL, so what he does is pay those players and promise them that if they just trust the coaches and do their job, then they will win a lot more than they lose, and if everyone does their job, the team has as good a chance as anyone to kiss a trophy.

Could that also explain Belichick seemingly thumbing his nose at the status quo in the draft?

Yes, it could, but that is a topic for another time but right now it is important for us to understand that
Cooper has a legitimate shot at jump starting his career in New England, but first he will have to earn a roster spot on an interior offensive line that is chock-full of young talent.

Cooper's first-round draft status carried little weight in New England, so no roster spot is guaranteed, especially given that Belichick surrendered top-three draft capital to select North Carolina State behemoth Joe Thuney, adding him to an interior mix with Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson, David Andrews, Josh Kline and Bryan Stork.

Mason appears to have a death-grip on the left guard spot, displaying rare athleticism in the running game to pull and drive defenders out of the hole, but the right guard and center positions are anything but settled heading into OTA's.

The Cardinals were toying with the idea of shifting Cooper - who had previously played at right guard - over to center before they dealt him to Foxborough, and Thuney practiced extensively at center as a Senior at NC State, both of whom add intrigue to the pivot position, which was manned by Andrews as a rookie for the fist half of last season, then taken over by the incumbent Stork after he returned from the IR.

The thing is, Stork also has position flexibility, having played guard in college and even has an emergency start at right tackle on his professional resume - in fact, the only player on the interior that really doesn't have documented positional versatility is Andrews, who is purely a pivot though he received reps at guard in last summer's training camp.

That could be a disadvantage for him, but Andrews has already made it tough to cut him, given his performance during the Patriots' 10-game winning streak to start the season.

So what the Patriots have on the interior are a bunch of guys who can play either guard or center, with the only players close to be a roster lock being Mason at left guard and Stork at center with a log jam at right guard between Cooper, Jackson and Kline - while the roster locks on the ends being Nate Solder on Brady's blindside and Sebatian Vollmer on the strong side.

And unless Thuney completely bombs in camp, he could very well become the unit's default lineman - because the value to the team is in his versatility, and perhaps his rare singular talent would have saved the offensive line last season when the injuries started to mount, or at least given them more of a fighting chance.

Regardless, Thuney's selection in the third round was a boon to Belichick. Most see him as a guard in the pros but with his overall athleticism and tremendous footwork, placing him solely on the interior would be limiting what the North Carolina State product brings to the field and not receiving full value out of their high draft capital investment.

Thuney's best destiny would be as five-position mercenary of sorts, as he could ably fill in at any position on the line - and not just fill in, but do so ably, as he has shown the dexterity and intelligence to show proper technique at every position.  These types of players are rare, with a young Logan Mankins being the last player that the Patriots had with such impactful versatility.

Needless to say, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will love the kid's versatility and toughness - he played through injury most of his senior season and has that Mankins-like approach to the game.

Many feel that Scarnecchia coming out of retirement to pick up an offensive line that was seen to underachieve under Dave DeGuglielmo will be a windfall to the unit, but not even the amazing Scarnecchia can change what these guys are, which is a drive blocking, power-running unit.  In the two seasons that "Scar" was dipping his toes in the sand, Belichick brought in three of the most powerful drive blockers in the last two draft classes... Bryan Stork in 2014 and guards Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson last season.  Together with Solder, Vollmer and the heft of the tight ends on the roster, the Patriots should have been a top 10 rushing team in 2015, but due to injury and ambivalence toward the running game by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the running game scared no one, mired in the bottom three units in the entire NFL.

With a running game being a quarterback's best friend, the combination of injury and McDaniels' neglect of balance in the offense left Brady and his offensive line no friends to lean on in tough times, instead, the line was outnumbered and overwhelmed and Brady took an epic beating.

DeGuglielmo took the fall as a convenient scapegoat, the Patriots opting not to renew his contract, but the simple fact of the matter is that he had very few options in his coaching style other than trying to figure out a way to stem the onrushing tide of pressure from opposing defenses, which proved to be futile.

Scarnecchia is a team player, but is also very vocal and won't hesitate to let Belichick and McDaniels know where he and his charges stand.  He has earned that right, much like Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel did when they acted as sounding boards for Belichick at the start of his dynastic run.

They are what they are, and what the Patriots' offensive line is built for is to make the opposition respect their running game, which has a trickle-down effect of Brady's masterful play action fakes becoming a legitimate weapon again and giving the linemen a chance to anchor in their stances and to throw the first punch, both things keeping the pass rushers off of Brady in the pocket.

It really is that simple.  We already know that the Patriots have one of the most progressive offenses in football - what with the best quarterback to ever play the game playing pitch and catch with a monstrous collection of tight ends and some of the toughest covers in the league - but that means very little without balance between the running and passing.

A couple of different factors can affect how many and which offensive linemen make the roster.  First is Scarnecchia's presence and his preference for solidifying his offensive line early in the team-building process, then letting the depth players left over fight it out for a spot on the roster. Scarnecchia will have his starters set before the first preseason game and ride them through rough patches to build cohesion.

Secondly is the fact that Belichick signed Martellus Bennett and Clay Harbor to team with Rob Gronkowski to give New England the best set of tight ends in the game.  Bennett and Gronkowski may be the two most complete tight ends in the league, and having them in the game running out of 12 personnel means that the need for a swing tackle is not as critical as it has been in the past...

...solely because there is not a scenario in the play book that the team benefits from having either of those guys out of the game, so neither will be replaced by a swing tackle on short yardage as both are among the best blockers at the position.

Last, is the development of Thuney.  If he is what Belichick envisions him to be - sort of a swiss army knife - then that should open up a roster spot somewhere else.

So in Belichick's perfect world, He would have Solder and Vollmer, healthy, as his starting tackles with mid-2015 pickup LaAdrian Waddle and Thuney as swing tackles, Mason and Jackson as guards with Cooper and Thuney as reliable depth, and Stork at center backed up by Andrews - eight linemen with a possible ninth being tight end Michael Williams, who is a dual threat as drive-blocking tackle in the running game.

It's a different look for sure, and perhaps a bit early to make such a forecast - especially considering that super-sized tackle Marcus Cannon has always been a favorite of Scarnecchia's, and it's common knowledge that he loves undersized scrappers like Josh Kline and David Andrews fighting on the interior...

...but whatever happens in the team-building process, one can be reasonably certain that balance is on it's way to Foxborough. and with balance, an effective offensive line, a clean Brady lots and lots of points.

It really is that simple.

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