Friday, July 1, 2016

Relaoding The Musket, Part 5 - Embarrassment Of Riches Adorn Patriots' Offensive Line. Really.

Mason (69) should have a roster spot all sewn up, but the same can not be said for Cannon (61)
It's called having too much of a good thing, and the New England Patriots have that all over their roster.

Think about it: On defense, they have what has to be the best safety depth in the league, a pair of linebackers that are sure to be in the top 30 of the NFL's 100 best players, and a defensive line that has too few spots for a plethora of outstanding run-stuffers, edge setters and pass rushers...

...while on offense they have the greatest quarterback who ever lived, backed up by the most game-ready sophomore in the league, a set of tight ends that are so good that they dictate what receivers are kept on the roster to complement them (not to mention , and a collection of running backs that fit the philosophy perfectly - and an offensive line absolutely stocked to the brim with talent.

That is a far cry from what we witnessed during the second half of last season, and that we heard from the media and other casual fans, but last season was an aberration in that injury - to the line and to many skill position players - dictated what the line was: a collection of matadors who simply stepped aside and let quarterback Tom Brady deal with the onslaught of pass rushers.

Which is bullshit, of course, but fans can be excused for seeking a scapegoat after the huge egg the Patriots' offense laid in the final two months of last season, misguided as it is.

Because it's not like the Patriots' offensive linemen suddenly sucked after years of stout protection - and truth be told, they really weren't that bad, given the circumstances.  There is no hiding the fact that the struggles of the offense were directly attributed to the struggles along the line, but the aforementioned circumstances put the injury-decimated line in the no-win position of being no more than a levee attempting to hold back a tsunami.

Six playoff teams gave up more sacks and quarterback hits than New England's offensive line did in the regular season, including two conference championship game participants and the eventual Super Bowl champions - and in the post season, all three of the Patriots' fellow conference championship participants gave up more sacks, but none of them allowed their quarterback to be hit more than Brady was.

Perhaps that was because no one threw the ball more than Brady, as he dropped back an insane 49 times per game in the playoffs, a full 19 more than both Super Bowl participants.  When put in that context, the Patriots offensive line was actually the best team at protecting their quarterback.

Where they fell short is in the running game, running the ball just 31 times in their two playoff games while calling 98 passing plays, a balance disparity of 76% to 24% in favor of the passing game - and if one were to eliminate Brady's rushing attempts, they would discover that the running backs to handoffs from Brady just 22 times.

Arizona was in the same boat, so to speak, losing in the NFC Championship to Carolina and abandoning their running game when they fell behind by 17 points in the first quarter while Carolina enjoyed balance on a epic scale, and the Broncos were almost perfectly balanced in their narrow win over New England, who simply had run out of players for Brady to hand off to.

What does this have to do with the offensive line?

When the Patriots lost LeGarrette Blount to a season-ending hip injury in week 14 against Houston, they lost much more than just a player - they lost the ability to create balance, and when a team becomes one-dimensional in the manner that New England did, it affects the offensive line more than any other unit on the offense.

Think about it.  When a team doesn't have a very good passing game and are forced to run the football, the defense can load up the box against the run and leave their corners one-on-one with the receivers, rendering the running game inert.  By contrast, if a team doesn't have a running game to speak of and are forced to the air, the defense can pin their ears back and come after the quarterback, overwhelming the offensive line with sheer numbers.

That is exactly what happened to the Patriots' offensive line last season.

Their troubles began in the preseason when starting center Bryan Stork suffered a concussion which eventually landed him on the team's injured reserve list, with a designation to return, leaving the job to Ryan Wendell - but when undrafted rookie David Andrews beat out Wendell for the job, New England found themselves starting the season with all three interior line positions manned with rookies.

Career backup Josh Kline was added to the mix, spelling left guard Shaq Mason and right guard Tre Jackson and for the first three games, things seemed to be on the up-and-up for New England, as Andrews was drawing raves for his technique, Mason for his athleticism and Jackson for his sheer size and toughness - and when combined with veteran bookends in identically-sized tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, the Patriots looked to have one of the more intriguing young lines in the NFL...

...but that all changed in a week 5 matchup with the Cowboys in Dallas, as New England lost blindside mauler Solder and his backup, young LaAdrian Waddle, in consecutive series - Waddle suffered a shoulder injury and would return in a few weeks, but Solder was shelved for the season with a torn bicep.

Vollmer moved from the strong side to take over on the left and swing tackle Marcus Cannon filled in on the right, but the following week in Indianapolis started a turnstile of revolving linemen - Cannon started at left tackle against the Colts and Vollmer went back to his accustomed right tackle, but Cannon lasted only one quarter, forcing the Patriots to bring in their third line grinder in Cam Fleming...

And so it went, as New England ended up starting 13 different offensive line combinations and never finding that cohesive bond due to minor injuries among the interior linemen, Solder's injury and Stork's absence until he could come off the IR in November.

The issue, of course, was with the swing tackle depth, as neither Cannon nor Fleming were consistently effective.  In fact, things got so bad that upon Stork's return, the team started him at right tackle against the Giants in Week 10, rather than go with what they knew wasn't going to work against New York's elite pass rush.

Now, according to my math, New England did exactly nothing to rectify the issue with tackle depth, leaving the team's fate in the hands of Cannon, Fleming and Waddle - but while that will cause shivers down every Patriots' fan's spine, it has to be remembered that all of them suffered from the imbalance in the play calling which by the time the season ended was being dictated solely by however many pseudo-healthy bodies they could put on the field.

Waddle has untapped potential as a blindside protector, having played on the left at pass happy Texas Tech, and holding his own against the best the Big 12 had to offer as far as pass rushers are concerned, including future All Pro Von Miller - the same Von Miller who shamelessly abused Cannon and Fleming in the AFC Title game and who did the same to Carolina in the Super Bowl to garner MVP honors.

But that doesn't mean there isn't hope for the edges in the event of injury, as the aforementioned elite tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and former Chicago Bear Martellus Bennett will rarely - if ever - come off the field because of their skill not only as pass catchers, but also as devastating run blockers.

Gronkowski has always been a factor in the running game, but so was Michael Hoomanawanui, who was dealt to New Orleans at the end of September, upgrading the Saints' edge blocking by a significant margin while leaving New England with a gimpy Williams and little else opposite Gronkowski.

In return, New England shored up the interior of their defensive line with three-tech Akiem Hicks and, in truth, he was a main cog that allowed the Patriots' defense to carry the team through the difficult last two months - but maybe they wouldn't have had to rely on the defense as much had they kept Hoomanawanui...

...but that is a double-edged sword, and pointless to even argue, especially since the position is now well-stocked with H-back types and monstrously complete tight ends, so the tackle depth isn't as critical since there are so many folks able and willing to lend a hand if the onus falls to one of the depth options already on the roster.

One of those options was thought to be third-round pick North Carolina State rookie Joe Thuney, but on second glance Thuney is sort of an enigma.  He has the length to play on the outside, but has short arms and panics a bit with speed rushers and has a tendency to latch on if he thinks he's going to be beaten on the corner, and tends to lean on them if they try inside technique.

So, many are expecting Thuney to compete for a spot on the interior, where he can slide-step to mirror three techs and his short arms and tendency to lean won't cause as much of a balance issue.  In that respect, Thuney is a project, but with upside and a great teacher in line coach Dante Scarnecchia, he should be a depth fixture all over the line, particularly on the inside

Besides, on the inside is where the embarrassment of riches lie as well as the resultant too much of a good thing.

Andrews proved that he could handle the pivot while Stork recovered on the IR, and offered a technically sound pass anchor, though he is undersized with a light lower body.  He doesn't offer and position flexibility, however, which limits his roster potential as Stork and newcomers Jonathan Cooper and Joe Thuney all excel at multiple positions, including center.

Of course, Stork's health is a concern, so the center position is volatile spot.  If Stork can stay healthy, he's the best option at the pivot, but will head ball coach Bill Belichick keep a pure center on the roster to back up Stork, or will Andrews find himself on the waiver wire come September?  One thing is for sure, with his body of work as a rookie, he won't clear waivers.

Both guard spots are wide open for camp competition, and Belichick has to hope that newcomer Jonathan Cooper rises above his incumbents and realizes his enormous potential.

Drafted seventh overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2013, the oft-injured Cooper came into the league lauded as an excellent pass blocker and works better from the left guard spot, which enables him to use his elite foot quickness and outstanding power to pull to the strong side and to stonewall bull rushing tackles...

...which is primarily what incumbent left guard Shaq Mason excels at as the class of 2015's best drive blocker, edging out the huge right guard Tre Jackson for that title.  Both struggled as rookies in pass protection, however, which lends credence to Belichick's insistence that Cooper be part of the compensation package in the deal that sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona.

Kline is serviceable, if undersized, as a rotational guard, but his time in New England may be about to expire as Cooper, Mason and Jackson are the top three guards on the roster and Thuney is a virtual roster lock as a third-round draft pick.

Traditionally, Belichick has kept ten offensive linemen on his 53-man roster, and when you consider those four, plus four tackles and two centers, it leave nothing but the waiver wire for everyone else - that is, unless sixth-round pick Ted Karras puts his impressive lineage on display and steals one of the guard spots....

...but Karras seems destined for the practice squad, while Kline, either Marcus Cannon or Cam Fleming, Chris Barker and Keavon Milton attempt to latch on elsewhere.

That's what happens when you have too much of a good thing...

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