A potential storm is brewing in New England. With the most recent move to send starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn to the Injured Reserve, the Patriots are now down two starting offensive linemen for at least the next eight games. Before the season started, New England projected to have the best interior offensive line trio in football. Then, David Andrews was placed on IR due to his blood clot condition. Andrews is now joined by Wynn, although Wynn is eligible to resume practicing in six weeks and return to game action after eight weeks.
To complicate matters further, Marcus Cannon missed Week 2 against Miami due to a shoulder injury he sustained in the season opener. The injury isn’t considered serious. Cannon practiced in a limited capacity leading up to Week 2 but ultimately was ruled out. However, it is not entirely clear when Cannon will return to game action as of this writing. Furthermore, Cannon has proven to be injury-plagued throughout his career, as the offensive tackle has missed 17 games since the beginning of 2015.
Any games Cannon misses will result in New England being down three slated starting offensive linemen ahead of 2019. There is a reasonable argument to be made that a similar scenario cost the Patriots a Super Bowl in 2015. How grim (or not) is the outlook this time around?
This is the position where New England doesn’t appear at risk of a significant downgrade. Through two weeks, Ted Karras ranks eighth at the center position in Pro Football Focus’s grading with a 70.2 grade. In limited action in 2017 and 2018, Karras earned grades of 73.7 and 74.3, respectively. While all these grades have been earned on limited snaps (154 in 2017, 174 in 2018, 141 in 2019), the overall consistency can be taken as a point of optimism.
More encouragingly, these numbers are in line with Andrews’ 70.3 grade from Weeks 1-17 of last year. That mark was good for 9th best at the center position during the regular season. While we are dealing with a small sample size regarding Karras’ play thus far, early returns are he can fill in admirably for Andrews.
Offensive tackle is the largest potential problem area for New England moving forward. After Wynn exited the game against the Dolphins, the Patriots were fielding Korey Cunningham and Marshall Newhouse at the two tackle positions. We will give you a minute to Google both of their names.
Wynn, who missed his entire rookie season due to a torn Achilles, was off to a good start in his second year. Through 82 snaps, Wynn has a 72.8 overall grade, 14th best at the tackle position. Ironically, the man Wynn replaced, Trent Brown, is 15th through two games.
Against Miami, the Patriots offensive line allowed 6 total pressures. Cunningham and Newhouse were responsible for 5 of them. The duo also committed three penalties, half of the six committed by the entire offensive line. While 6 pressures as a unit over the course of an entire game isn’t the end of the world, Cunningham and Newhouse are easily the weak links on this line. Additionally, the quality of opponent must also be taken into consideration.
On 59 total snaps this season, Cunningham has a 58.1 overall grade. It’s a small sample size, but it also matches his 60.4 grade earned last season earned on 349 snaps. As for Newhouse, he has a 50.3 overall grade after logging 71 snaps thus far in 2019. The 9-year veteran now has an average grade of 57.76 for his career.
Earlier in the week, New England signed Caleb Benenoch, and it was a large news story, as they “beat out” nine other teams for a street free agent. That sentence speaks for itself on how dire the tackle situation is right now in Foxborough.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 17, 2019
For those keeping track at home, Benenoch has posted grades of 44.7, 50.8, and 43.1 over his three seasons.
As mentioned at the outset, one hypothesis for why New England did not win the Super Bowl in 2015 is the offensive line could not withstand a rash of injuries. That team started the year 10-0 before getting decimated by injuries across the roster. The Patriots finished 2-4 down the stretch, and that 12-4 record earned them the #2 seed in the AFC.
As a result, the team had to travel to Denver for the AFC Title Game, as opposed to hosting the Broncos in New England. In that AFC Championship, an offensive line featuring Bryan Stork and Sebastian Vollmer allowed 39 total pressures. Josh Kline was the biggest offender, registering 12 pressures allowed by himself.
On the day, Tom Brady was hurried 22 times, hit 12 times, and sacked five times. Despite finally having both Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field at the same time after each sustained injuries earlier in the season, the once-unstoppable New England offense mustered 18 points in the loss. No amount of Brady magic was able to overcome such constant duress.
Perhaps things would have been different had the game been in Foxborough. Or if the offensive line had been in better shape. Or if the team did not trade away Logan Mankins for nothing of substance right before the season began.
New England Outlook
To alleviate some the doomsday tone of this article, Wynn is expected to return later in the season, while Cannon is considered day-to-day. As discussed above, Karras is filling in nicely for Andrews. Also, for what it’s worth, Dante Scarnecchia was not with the team in 2015. Scarnecchia returned ahead of the 2016 season, and New England has participated in every Super Bowl since.
However, we need to mention that before the season started, we covered how the Patriots’ margin for error in 2019 is smaller than in years past. This was touched upon before Antonio Brown fell into the team’s lap, although his off-field situation hangs a cloud of uncertainty over his future availability.
With Wynn already out an extended period, and Cannon currently day-to-day, an injury to current starting interior trio would prove catastrophic to the offensive line. While having the most talent among your five-man unit possible is ultimately the goal, there is credence to the school of thought that any offensive line is only as good as the weakest link. If one of the five starters is so poor they are consistently beaten by the defense, it nearly voids how good the other four individuals are. New England currently has two horrendously weak links.
Scarnecchia is in town this time, and reinforcements are slated to return. Still, this is a thin group treading water in the deep end of the pool.
Jonathan Rosenberg is a writer for PFN covering the AFC East. You can find him @frosted_takes on Twitter.