Isaiah Wynn started his second straight exhibition game Thursday night in Foxborough, which represents important progress for the second-year tackle, who missed all of his rookie year because of injury. Most importantly for the Patriots, however, Wynn started his first game in front of Tom Brady, whose 42-year-old blind side Wynn will be entrusted to protect if all goes according to plan this season.
That’s what puts Wynn in the handful of most important — and if we’re being honest, least known — quantities on the Patriots’ roster. One look at Thursday night’s opposing quarterback, Cam Newton, reminds you why. Newton left Gillette Stadium in a walking boot after sustaining a foot injury in the first quarter. In what was the first start of the preseason for the Panthers veteran, Newton didn’t make it out of the first quarter after getting sacked by Adam Butler and Kyle Van Noy. The upshot reminder? If there is one abiding principle to success in the NFL, it is this: Keep the quarterback upright.
So all eyes turn to Wynn, drafted last year to fill the left tackle hole vacated by Nate Solder, but felled in the second preseason game against Philadelphia with an Achilles’ injury. Now, following a year of rehab, meetings, and film study, Wynn and his eternal optimism have made it back on the field, with all signs pointing toward a regular-season debut at left tackle. The early returns have been that good. He was part of the three series starters played Thursday, involved in the one touchdown drive that led to a Patriots victory. And though his efforts were not quite as clean as they’d been in his debut against Tennessee — Wynn lost a block on a screen pass to Phillip Dorsett that left him in no man’s land — he rebounded well on his next play, and overall was up to the physical task of life in the trenches.
“He’s been great,” said guard Joe Thuney, Wynn’s partner on the left side of the offensive line. “He works really, really hard and been around us for a while and he’s doing great. It’s fun to play next to him. He’s really hard-working, very detail-oriented, really likes playing football. We’re feeling that communication. It’s going well.”
Of course it’s too early to make any final decisions about how, or if, the first-round draft investment of Wynn a year ago will pay off the way Bill Belichick expects (though with offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia around, who would doubt Wynn’s development?). And after the way last-minute addition Trent Brown did the job in place of the Solder/Wynn hole, there were plenty who thought Belichick should have fought harder before letting the Raiders sign Brown away for four years and $66 million.
Maybe Brady would have preferred that, taking the known quantity over the unknown, untested one, but he doesn’t get a say. After his first few series behind the returning Wynn, the quarterback channeled some of his much-younger teammate’s positivity, but it was tempered. He certainly didn’t gush. Wynn has more than impressed the locker room with his response to that rookie disappointment, working hard to get back to 100 percent, and he’s more than connected with a fan base that loves his #WinWithWynn series of Wednesday tweets, all of which feature an inspirational message. But this is a performance business, and a veteran with Brady’s credentials and résumé doesn’t give away his trust easily.
“I think he’s taken advantage of his opportunity,” Brady said after Thursday’s game. “I think everyone expects him to be a high performer for our team. He’s getting opportunities and he’s going to have to take advantage of them. You know, nobody’s out there playing perfect tonight. I’m sure we’ve all got a long way to go — he does, I do — but we’ve got to get out there and practice and get a lot of guys back in there and find some rhythm.”
If the challenge has been laid, expect a big smile from Wynn in response. That’s how he rolls. Despite not being able to be on the field for last year’s Super Bowl-winning season, he looks back at his redshirt year with appreciation for what it did allow him to do, learn and absorb the NFL life. By the time his body caught up to his mind, he was ready for action.
“I was more excited than I was nervous,” is how he described it after his preseason debut in Nashville. “Being injured comes with its ups and downs. I handled it pretty well because of the guys I had around. I talked a lot to the veterans who had been in the same situation. I was able to learn from them.”
Wynn came to the Patriots out of the University of Georgia with some questions about being a left tackle, most of them rooted in something over which he has no control. At 6 feet 2 inches and 310 pounds, he is undersized for the position, and had spent a large part of his college career as a guard. But as former Georgia cocaptain and fellow Patriots first-round draftee a year ago Sony Michel said, it doesn’t much matter in Wynn’s case.
“I would say he’s the best offensive lineman. I’m not even going to put a position because I’m not a coach, but I’m going to say he’s the best offensive lineman that I’ve seen in a long time,” Michel said after the two were taken 23rd (Wynn) and 31st (Michel) last year. “His skill set, he’s able to do everything you ask of him. He’s a coachable player. He’s one of those players that if a coach tells him to do one thing, he’ll do it.”
That’s what Brady is banking on.