The Patriots offensive line likely will have a new look and a new leader in 2020.
With longtime assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring, the position players affectionately referred to as the “Big Uglies” by the late great Keith Jackson will have a new leader in the room.
Scarnecchia’s replacement might already be on hand, as coaching assistant Carmen Bricillo and assistant running backs coach Cole Popovich have offensive line experience.
Bricillo worked closely with Scarnecchia last season, his first in the organization. A center during his playing days at Duquesne, he spent the previous nine seasons as offensive line coach at Youngstown State, a highly respected FCS (nee Division 1-AA) program.
Popovich was an offensive lineman at Fresno State and coached offensive linemen at several college stops before joining the Patriots in 2015. He also worked alongside Scarnecchia before assuming his current role.
One of the biggest question marks heading into next season is the status of center David Andrews, who was forced to sit out all last season as he dealt with blood clots in his lungs.
Andrews is an excellent communicator with sneaky speed and strength and enjoys an excellent rapport with Tom Brady and his fellow men in the trenches.
This is a key month for Andrews, who told ESPN in January that he’s “feeling great” and that he had some medical appointments in February that could clarify his future.
If the 27-year-old Andrews, who was a constant presence at practice and in the locker room during his recuperation, can return to full health and strength, it would be a huge boost for this offensive line.
If Andrews’s return is delayed, the Patriots could look to re-sign the valuable and versatile Ted Karras, while also making center a top draft priority.
Two other players who sat out the 2019 season could return and possibly play significant roles in 2020.
Rookies Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt never played a snap for the Patriots because of injuries but nevertheless have a year of the system under their belt and should get off to a running start when the offseason program commences.
Cajuste is the biggest mystery of the big bunch. The third of New England’s three third-round picks in 2019, the 6-foot-5-inch, 310-pound tackle from West Virginia never even made it to the Foxborough practice fields after having quadriceps surgery before the draft.
Cajuste was one of the Big 12’s top tackles over his final two seasons, blending excellent athleticism (he was a high school basketball player) and strength to protect quarterback Will Grier’s back in Morgantown.
He’s sharp (he is currently pursuing a second degree) and is adept at recognizing blitzes and adjusting. Cajuste’s ability to quickly mirror a defender’s moves and his wicked wingspan allow him to match up with bull rushers and speed guys.
Cajuste could be the solution to a lot of problems the Patriots possibly are facing — especially if stalwart left guard Joe Thuney leaves in free agency.
Cajuste could take over at left tackle, allowing the Patriots to bump Isaiah Wynn into the left guard spot. He also could spend the season as the swing man behind Wynn and 32-year-old right tackle Marcus Cannon.
Froholdt’s development also could help answer some of the same questions. The fourth-rounder from Arkansas has excellent size for the guard position (6-5, 310 pounds).
He’s a bit ahead of Cajuste, in that he was able to participate in all of camp before going down with a shoulder injury in the exhibition finale against the Giants.
The native of Denmark has a sturdy base and powerful arms and was able to consistently dominate opponents in the SEC. He had an uneven camp but did show flashes.
If he can continue to develop, Froholdt could either plop into Thuney’s spot or be the top guard off the bench.