Depth, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has said, is like an insurance policy.
“If you never need it, then you don’t need it,” he said two years ago. “If you need it, then you’re glad you have it. You never know where you’re going to need it.”
The Patriots have certainly needed depth on their offensive line this season.
Through five games, as a result of absences and injuries, nine players have logged snaps along New England’s offensive line.
At one point against the Broncos last Sunday, four of the five offensive linemen on the field were playing out of their typical position. The shuffling didn’t go unnoticed — quarterback Cam Newton was sacked a season-high four times — but the unit has managed to hold its ground given the circumstances.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday morning. “We had a lot of guys play multiple positions and prepare to play multiple positions last week. They deserve a lot of credit for being able to go in and function.”
Holes within the line began popping up before the team even suited up for a game. First, starting right tackle Marcus Cannon opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. Then, center Dustin Woodard announced his retirement four months after getting drafted in the seventh round.
With Cannon as the lone starter out, the bulk of the unit remained the same: Joe Thuney at left guard, Shaq Mason at right guard, David Andrews at center, and Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. A combination of Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Michael Onwenu would fill in at right tackle. Hole filled.
That lineup didn’t last very long, though. Andrews broke his thumb and was placed on injured reserve. Mason was placed on the COVID-reserve list, as was backup center James Ferentz. Eluemunor injured his ankle against the Broncos and was placed on IR.
The absences paved the way for more playing time for Onwenu, who has logged 100 percent of the team’s offensive snaps over the last three games. Fellow rookie Justin Herron also has seen the field more, playing 100 percent of the offensive snaps over the last two games.
And 2019 fourth-round draft pick Hjalte Froholdt finally made his NFL debut, against the Broncos.
“On the offensive line, you never know what is going to happen,” Froholdt said. “I always made sure that I stayed ready. Whenever my turn [came] or it was my time to go, I made sure I knew the whole playbook and I prepared like I was the starter.”
Perhaps the most has been asked of Onwenu and Herron, who have played on both the right and left sides, which is no easy task. The pair has bonded over that experience, Herron said Thursday, and believe the opportunities have given them a more holistic understanding of the playbook.
“The coaches, all spring, they did a good job of telling me and Michael, ‘Make sure you know different positions and be ready,’ ” Herron said. "Obviously, when you’re going full speed, it’s hard. It’s hard to go from different positions, but hey, that’s what we signed up for, you know what I mean? Was it hard? Yes. But all in all, it’s helped so much me to know what’s going on in terms of what everyone’s doing on every single play.''
Co-offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo acknowledged how “it’s not the norm” for two players to navigate such roles so early in their careers.
“I think that’s a credit to them and their preparation,” he said. “From the moment we drafted them in rookie minicamps and going through all the virtual work, you saw these guys putting the work in.”
Week 7 will likely represent a return to normalcy for the offensive line, as Andrews was activated off IR and Mason off the COVID-reserve list. With their returns, Froholdt and Herron probably won’t see as much action, but Onwenu certainly will.
According to Pro Football Focus, Onwenu ranks as the second-best guard in the league, behind only Wyatt Teller of the Browns. Mason is not far behind at fifth-best, while Thuney checks in at eighth-best.
Through New England’s first three games, Pro Football Focus considered the Patriots' offensive line to be the second-best in the league at pass blocking and fourth-best at run blocking. Through five games, despite the recent shuffling, the performance has not dipped much: PFF has the unit ranked third-best at pass blocking and fourth-best at run blocking.
Belichick seemed hopeful the group is trending in the right direction.
“As some of our younger players get a little more experience and as we get a little more experience playing together consistently as a group, that will help us,” he said. “Players and coaches have done a good job there. It hasn’t been easy, but they’ve worked very hard to have a solid level of performance.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at email@example.com.