Tuesday, August 23, 2016

For Patriots' Marcus Cannon, Vollmer Injury Opens Opportunity

When word surfaced on Sunday that starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer had undergone shoulder surgery and was done for the season before it even started, the news was met with gloom by New England Patriots' fans, because they saw what happened last season with the offensive line and injuries.

And though many still blame the offensive line for what happened in 2015, the truth of the matter is that injuries to running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount forced the Patriots into a one-dimensional air show that left the offensive line on their heels and at the mercy of opposing pass rushers, as defensive coordinators sent everything they had after Brady, knowing that the Patriots had no running game to counter their aggression.

Of course, there were injuries along the offensive line, but none so debilitating that they couldn't have been overcome, and even if New England would have been healthy along the line, the sheer numbers that opposing defenses sent against them would have dictated similar results.  But that doesn't ease the minds of the fans or the media - and rightfully so, as whatever it was that happened last year wasn't going to cut it in 2016.

But the Vollmer injury impacts the offensive line in ways that the season-ending injury to left tackle Nate Solder didn't last season.  Vollmer filled in for Solder on the left for most of the season, but Solder just doesn't have that kind of versatility - so the onus on the strong side falls on sixth-year swing tackle Marcus Cannon...

...scary stuff to most, as Cannon has suffered the scourge of fans and media alike for nearly his entire career in Foxborough due to what has been seen as ineffective play, but a deeper look inside the player and the scheme eschews the traditional thoughts on Cannon's play.

Hammered by cancer coming out of college, Cannon sat out the bulk of his rookie season on the team's NFI (Non-football Injury) list, returning in week 10 and giving coaches and fans a reason to be optimistic about the gargantuan tackle's prospects as a fill-in for starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was struggling with back problems.

A first-round talent, Cannon slid down draft boards after irregularities in his blood work during the 2011 NFL combine revealed he was suffering from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, many feeling that his career was in jeopardy and that he probably wouldn't be drafted at all, despite his glowing scouting reports...

...many of which called him one of the more athletic tackles coming out of college which, when coupled with a massive 6' 5", 356 pound frame had Cannon listed as one of the top offensive linemen in the draft - all of which seemed to make Cannon the steal of the draft when New England General Manager Bill Belichick selected Cannon in the fifth round, and particularly when Cannon made it back to the field after completing treatment for the malady.

Unfortunately for both Cannon and the Patriots, life as a swing tackle saw him filling in at guard and tackle on both sides of the line throughout the following seasons, and never being able to settle in at just one position.  Most saw this as a failure on Cannon's part, but there is a reason why he was always the first player called upon when an injury occurred on the line.

But as a journeyman along the line, Cannon has never really been able to settle in on just one position, and has had to adjust his skill set to fit the need of the team - which is not how Belichick likes to handle players as a coach, as he prefers to add a player's distinctiveness to the collective rather than force a square skill set to fit into a round hole.

For example, at the start of the 2014 Super Bowl season, Cannon started the season at left guard, the thinking being that his massive frame and powerful anchor would help keep opposing pass rushers out of quarterback Tom Brady's face, but he struggled when teams lined up faster three-tech tackles against him, as chronic issues with his right foot wouldn't allow him to plant and drive when the rusher would go to his outside shoulder...

...and after three games of watching Brady getting planted up the middle, Cannon was reverted back to his swing tackle role, as Josh Kline and Ryan Wendell filled in the remainder of the season - this after all of Cannon's pro experience was at the tackle positions.

Many were down on Cannon after that episode, but he had fans in the people who counted the most, in Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

"Love his physicality, love his passion for the game." Scharnecchia raved of Cannon, adding, "He's a smart kid, a great kid to coach, driven to be very good. I think he's a really good tackle. I like what he's doing, I like how he's doing it.  Every day is a growth for him. He's a special kid, He's a starting quality player."

But 2015 brought more struggles, as a season ending injury to starting left tackle Nate Solder and his primary backup, LaAdrian Waddle, in the same game pressed Cannon into service on Brady's blind side.  Cannon re-injured his right foot in the following game - a nasty case of turf toe - and was out of the lineup for a month before returning on the left against Buffalo and getting beat like he stole something before being replaced by Vollmer.

His struggles on the left upon his return were encapsulated by NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth during the game, who pointed out that Cannon was getting beat around the edge because of the same reason he couldn't handle the left guard spot earlier in his career, the chronic issues with his right foot that wouldn't allow him to plant and anchor properly.

Belichick moved him back to the right, where he stayed the rest of the year and started to grow into the position, gaining praise from Belichick, who said he played his finest game as a Patriot in the divisional playoff win over Kansas City.

So Cannon is a right tackle.  His turf toe is healed and he's looked good-to-very good in the first two preseason games - a lot of it due to concentrating solely on the position mixed in with the return of Scarnecchia after a two-year hiatus, who preaches consistency and isn't a big fan of moving players around.

But one thing is certain: Cannon performing well and finally grasping a position for his own can only help the Patriots' offense.

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