5 Free-Agent Offensive Linemen New England Patriots Should Target This Offseason
The offensive line has been the most inconsistent group on the New England Patriots roster over the past two years.
Is it a coincidence that the line's downturn coincided with the retirement of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and the hiring of Dave DeGuglielmo in his place? If so, we might find out soon, as DeGuglielmo has parted ways with the Patriots and Scarnecchia is being brought back to fill his old position.
Of course, a few other factors have contributed to the Patriots' struggles. One of the biggest issues has been a changing of the guard (pun intended) on the interior of the offensive line, which was once manned by Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly. Both have left the fold, and the Patriots spent much of 2015 tinkering with different combinations on the inside.
Injuries have been another issue. Left tackle Nate Solder missed most of 2015 with a biceps injury, which forced Sebastian Vollmer over to left tackle (where he's not as good as he is at right tackle) and forced Marcus Cannon into the starting lineup at right tackle. (That's Cannon's most natural position, but he's a backup for a reason.)
So, while Scarnecchia might help get the most out young players like Tre' Jackson, Shaq Mason and David Andrews, there may still be some personnel questions to answer on the offensive line.
With veteran right guard Geoff Schwartz set to count for $4.9 million against the salary cap in 2016, there was no way the New York Giants could justify keeping him. He was not the same man who helped pave the way for two top-10 rush attacks in 2012 and 2013—and with two different teams, no less.
That's precisely why the Giants signed him: to help out the running game. When he's been healthy, that's exactly what he's done. But Schwartz suffered two season-ending injuries over the past two years and played just 13 of a possible 32 games.
According to Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media, Schwartz played with damaged nerves in his foot and ankle before suffering the broken ankle that ended his season. So we know he's tough. But is he durable? That's another question entirely. On a one-year deal, Schwartz would be worth a shot. With that said, the Patriots better have a good backup plan—if Schwartz's past two years are any indication, they'll need it.
If you're looking for connections between a free agent and the Patriots, Cleveland Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz played for the Browns while Michael Lombardi—an assistant to the Patriots' coaching staff—was general manager in 2013. He wouldn't be the first former Browns player signed to the Patriots since Lombardi arrived: Running back Dion Lewis and defensive end Jabaal Sheard are the two best examples.
Schwartz was graded as one of the six best tackles in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, but he made his biggest impact as a run-blocker. In pass protection, he was only average among other tackles (32 hurries, eight hits, three sacks for a combined 43 pressures was among the top 20 tackles in the NFL in 2015).
At 27 years old, Schwartz has a bright future ahead of him, which probably also means he has a big contract ahead of him—probably a contract that's too big for the Patriots to match.
It's NFL cut season, which means there are players becoming available who wouldn't be otherwise. The Patriots have capitalized on this in the past, most notably with the signing of Darrelle Revis a few years back.
New Orleans Saints guard Jahri Evans has been plagued with injuries over the past few seasons, but when he was healthy, he was named to five straight All-Pro rosters between 2009 and 2013. At 6'4" and 318 pounds, the 32-year-old guard has not played up to his dominant level of late, and with his age and recent performance, the Saints couldn't justify keeping him at his $8.2 million cap hit.
Evans would make a lot of sense if the Patriots don't have confidence in either Tre' Jackson or Shaq Mason to continue to develop after up-and-down rookie seasons, or if they feel that one year of Evans is worth potentially stunting either Jackson or Mason's growth. Other than that, he might be out of their price range.
Is this cheating? Maybe. But it's never a good idea to rule out a team putting a premium on experience in its own system. Ryan Wendell has plenty of that, and although the Patriots have already drafted his replacement in Shaq Mason, a smart veteran backup will be hard to come by in free agency.
In seven years with the Patriots, Wendell has seen it all in terms of the positions he's been asked to play. He's come off the bench as an extra lineman to rotate on the inside, but he's also started at all three interior spots on the line. The Patriots value versatility and fundamentals more than anything else on the offensive line.
Whether the young guards are the future or not, the Patriots need to find out soon. Bringing back Wendell on a one-year deal is the best solution. This way, if either Mason or Tre' Jackson fails to take the next step in their development, or if one of them gets injured, Wendell could easily step in and do a respectable job filling the void.
As mentioned in the previous slide, if there's one trait the Patriots value in a lineman, it's versatility. And if there's one trait Byron Bell has shown throughout his career, it's been versatility.
The 6'5", 340-pound monster was a tackle with the Carolina Panthers from 2011 to 2014, playing on the right side his first three years before moving to the left his last year in Carolina.
After signing with the Tennessee Titans, Bell was asked to move to guard for the first time in his career. It was not a fruitful move, but he gained experience playing on the inside in addition to his previous experience playing tackle on both sides.
The Patriots have question marks at numerous spots throughout their starting lineup and in their backup roles. Bell could fill a number of needs in one fell swoop.