The New England Patriots roster is in good shape heading into the 2019 NFL Draft, but every roster always has room for improvement. The Patriots currently have Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon penciled in to start at the offensive tackle positions, but there isn’t much depth behind them. After losing Trent Brown and LaAdrian Waddle, the Patriots need to bring in at least one more starting-caliber tackle in the event injury strikes one of the two starters. Fortunately, the Oakland Raiders recently released longtime left tackle Donald Penn, and New England should look into bringing the left tackle in with a chance to start.
Assessing New England’s Offensive Line
There is no such thing as too much offensive line depth, especially when your franchise quarterback is entering his age-42 season. Tom Brady is still one of the best in the game, but New England needs to protect him now more than ever to ensure his health. The Patriots did a fantastic job of this last year, as Football Outsiders ranked the Patriots offensive line as the best pass-blocking line in all of football.
The interior offensive line is set in stone with Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason. Each one of these players is among the best in the league at their respective positions and should maintain their high level of play into 2019. Right tackle Marcus Cannon isn’t quite as good as those three, but he’s still an above-average starter.
The only question along the offensive line rests at the left tackle position. Currently, the former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn is in line to protect Tom Brady’s blindside. Wynn certainly has the potential to do the job, but he’s a massive unknown. The Georgia product ruptured his Achilles in the 2018 preseason, missing his entire rookie year. Outside of a handful of preseason snaps, nobody knows how Wynn will perform against NFL-caliber competition.
Additionally, the Patriots don’t have any good options should Wynn not be able to make the NFL transition. Trent Brown left New England for the biggest offensive tackle contract in history while LaAdrian Waddle recently signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.
How Donald Penn Fits in New England
Entering his age-36 season, Donald Penn would be nothing more than a one- or two-year Band-Aid at the position. Last season with Oakland, the former undrafted free agent played in just four games at right tackle before a groin injury prematurely ended his season. Even when on the field, Penn had a subpar season playing out of position.
However, there are reasons to believe Penn can bounce back and provide New England with at least one year of solid play. Throughout the majority of his career, Penn started at left tackle. Switching positions isn’t easy, as mechanically you have to re-teach yourself how to do everything. It’s understandable that Penn struggled, as most players aren’t capable of re-learning a position overnight as Trent Brown did.
The last we saw of Penn at left tackle, he was still one of the better players at his position. Penn protected Derek Carr’s blindside in 2016 and 2017, earning Pro Bowl nominations in both seasons. Both nominations were highly deserved, as the 2017 Raiders had the seventh-best pass blocking offensive line and the 2016 Raiders had the top-ranked pass blocking offensive line.
While there is a chance that his groin injury is a sign of things to come, Penn has been remarkably healthy throughout the course of his career. Penn first earned a starting job back in 2007 and started every single game from 2007 to 2016. He only missed two games in 2017 before missing the majority of 2018. For a position as physically demanding as offensive tackle, this streak of durability is nothing short of remarkable.
Penn made it very clear in his farewell post to Oakland that he wants to play left tackle. New England offers that opportunity, as Wynn hasn’t earned the right to immediately step in as an unquestioned starter. If Penn truly is the better player, then he can take the starting job while Wynn can serve as the top depth option at tackle and guard. Expecting every member of the offensive line to play for a full 16-game season is asinine, so Wynn will still have a valuable role even if he’s not a Week One starter.
How Donald Penn Affects New England’s Draft Plans
Even if the Patriots sign Donald Penn, his presence shouldn’t affect their draft plans. At age 36, Penn is significantly closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The Patriots still need an infusion of youth across the tackle position and should consider investing their second-round pick in the tackle position.
New England typically likes to be four-deep at tackle, and signing Penn would only give them three known commodities at tackle. These three players come with questions of their own, as age might be catching up to Penn, Wynn has never played an NFL snap, and Cannon has yet to start a full 16-game season. In a perfect world, the trio of Penn, Wynn, and Cannon will be more than good enough for 2019. However, New England needs to have an emergency plan should calamity strike.
Even if the Patriots are sold on Penn, Wynn, and Cannon comprising their tackle depth in 2019, they still need to think about 2020. Penn is a year-to-year player at this point of his career, so New England can’t expect him to be the answer when Tom Brady is 43 years old. Additionally, Joe Thuney and capable backup guard Ted Karras are set to hit free agency following the 2019 season. New England loves to extend their offensive linemen early, but NESN’s Doug Kyed reports that extending Thuney before 2019 is “highly doubtful”.
Isaiah Wynn is an NFL-caliber player, but he might not be able to last at tackle due to his 6’2” height. Should Thuney depart in free agency, Wynn would be a natural replacement at left guard. This means that this year’s draft pick could immediately slide in and start the season as 2020’s left tackle. The Patriots always address a need a year in advance, and someone like Kansas State’s Dalton Risner in the second round would be a great fit.
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