New England Patriots either nailed or failed their offensive line fix

Mafi Atonio #56 of the UCLA Bruins pass blocks against the Arizona State Sun Devils. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Mafi Atonio #56 of the UCLA Bruins pass blocks against the Arizona State Sun Devils. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

During the New England Patriots dynasties, head coach Bill Belichick seemed to be thinking a few steps ahead of the competition. He would set trends that the rest of the league would copy. His innovative ideas caught opponents by surprise, took unbelievable risks that paid off, and had opposing coaches guessing what he would do next, and often guessing wrong.

Those moments don’t happen as frequently. Right now some of Belichick’s ideas have backfired, sometimes spectacularly. He won’t live down having Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running the offense anytime soon.

Which brings us to the Patriots NFL Draft selections. Despite offensive tackle being one of their top two needs, New England selected three interior linemen instead. That doesn’t seem to make sense immediately as the Patriots have a solid trio in LG Cole Strange, C David Andrews and RG Michael Onwenu.

In the Patriots post-draft press conference, Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh explained New England’s approach:

"Look, we are going to face all different sorts of pressure from the interior, but No. 1, if you’re getting run through, it’s going to be a long day. I think you can say that just about any team that’s trying to put together a big, strong team up front and that’s certainly something we want to do along with having right kind of play style."

Groh has a point, but are the Patriots going about providing QB Mac Jones with better protection the right way?

New England Patriots are focusing protection from the inside-out

The shortest distance to the quarterback is up the middle. It’s why blitzes up the A gaps are so effective. And the pass rusher doesn’t even have to get to the quarterback. If the pocket can be collapsed, it gives the quarterback no room to step up and either forces him off his mark or changes the timing of the play.

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There’s also a lot of talent at defensive tackle. Looking at the 2023 schedule, these are just some of the players New England has to contend with:

  • Philadelphia Eagles: Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Davis
  • Miami Dolphins: Christian Wilkins
  • New York Jets: Quinnen Williams
  • Kansas City Chiefs: Chris Jones

That’s some real good talent to try to neutralize. Some of these defenses are so good, some are able to apply pressure and disrupt the quarterback without blitzing.

Which explains why fortifying the offensive line’s interior is the Patriots’ priority.  So it makes sense to select Sidy Sow and Antonio Mafi. Both are heavy protectors tipping the scales around 330 pounds. When Groh talks about putting together a big, strong team up front, Sow and Mafi sure seem like what Groh has in mind.

They will be great depth additions behind Strange (Get your weight up, kid!) and Onwenu, or a possible replacement if Onwenu leaves via free agency after the 2023 season.

After all, QB Mac Jones is a good athlete, but he’s no Lamar Jackson. Jones isn’t even Malik Cunningham.

Still, the most dangerous pass rushers come from the edge. That’s been true for decades and it hasn’t changed. Just like above, these are some of the pass rushers the New England Patriots has to slow down:

  • Philadelphia Eagles: Hassan Reddick, Josh Sweat, and Brandon Graham
  • Buffalo Bills:  Von Miller and Gregory Rousseau
  • New York Jets: Carl Lawson and Will McDonald
  • Dallas Cowboys: Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence

To neutralize them, the Patriots likely will likely start Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn’s replacement.

What’s concerning is there is a lot of room for improvement between the pair. In 1,030 snaps Brown allowed eight sacks and was penalized 13 times, tied for most penalized according to Pro Football Focus while Wynn was responsible for nine penalties and four sacks in 423 snaps.

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Do the Patriots view Calvin Anderson (439 snaps, one penalty, two sacks) or Riley Reiff (542 snaps, four penalties, three sacks) as a solution? If you project those numbers to about 1,000 snaps, the results aren’t promising.

So why draft three interior linemen when Strange, Andrews and Onwenu combined for 14 penalties and eight sacks in nearly 3,000 snaps?

Or maybe the Patriots will switch Sow to offensive tackle. He has experience playing left tackle and his physical dimensions are within offensive tackle size and length. But if you believe New England Patriots reporter Evan Lazar, Sow is has a ways to go to change positions.

And Groh mentioned Andrew Steuber. Stop it. He’s a 2022 seventh round pick. Far from a sure thing.

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The most logical move would had been spend a day two selection on an OT. It wouldn’t had required passing on DT Keion White or LB Mapu Marte either. New England had plenty of draft capital to trade up and select an actual OT. And they probably still would had been able to select kicker Chad Ryland.

But that’s conventional thinking, which Belichick doesn’t adhere to. Time will tell if he out-smarted the league again or if he’s correcting the mistake a year from now. It won’t take nearly that long to find out.