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New England Patriots Offensive Tackle Troubles

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New England Patriots guard Mike Onwenu blocks against the Washington Commanders during an NFL football game at Gillette Stadium, Sunday Nov. 5, 2023 in Foxborough, Mass. Onwenu should be the Patriots top priority in NFL free agency. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

The New England Patriots relied on a a ‘power in numbers’ approach to their offensive tackle situation entering the 2023 season. Despite having a solid right tackle option in Mike Onwenu, the decision to start Onwenu there was not made until Week 7 against the Buffalo Bills. Trent Brown has played very well at left tackle, but has had availability issues. The depth that was brought aboard has been of little help.

In addition, the decisions of head coach Bill Belichick and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to wait so long to move Onwenu remains puzzling. After not addressing the tackle position in the 2023 NFL Draft, or bringing in a solid starter in free agency, the general plan for the position has remained a conundrum. The team has now failed to maximize their options at the position this season, and is left in a poor position for 2024 and beyond.

A look back on what has been happening to the New England Patriots offensive tackles in 2023.

Trent Brown

Brown missed Week 2 with a concussion. He has also missed the Patriots last two games. He sat out against Washington in Week 9 with ankle and knee injuries, after having his leg was rolled up on against Buffalo. Brown played the following week against the Dolphins, but it was his least effective performance of the year.  His DNP vs. the Commanders was not unexpected. His DNP this past weekend against the Colts was more eyebrow raising. Brown was listed as being out due to both his ankle injury, and personal reasons. It is unclear if these are the same type of personal reasons that kept J.C. Jackson from flying to Germany (and obviously unfair to speculate, as ‘personal reasons’ is a very broad brush).

New England renegotiated Trent Brown’s contract earlier this season. It paid him a nice bonus and got him more money. But Brown is still set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2024. His PFF grade (81.4) is the best of his career, even after the poor performance against the Dolphins. So Brown will be in good position to cash in during the offseason. Will he get back on the field for New England this season though?

Mike Onwenu

Onwenu played exclusive at right tackle as a rookie in 2020, and played a lot of tackle in 2021 as well. But then he moved over to guard full-time. He missed the first game of 2023 with an ankle injury. After that he played 100% of the snaps for three games at right guard. But Onwenu didn’t look like himself. Against the Cowboys, he had three costly penalties. After being injured during the Saints game in Week 5, Onwenu missed the following game against the Raiders. When he returned against the Bills in Week 7, he was finally moved over to right tackle.

At right tackle, Onwenu has looked solid. He has provided consistency at a position where there was none. His performance at right tackle makes the decision to not play him there sooner baffling. He has been especially impressive as a run blocker. Like Trent Brown, Onwenu is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. If the New England Patriots do not bring back at least one of them, there will be some major holes to fill in 2024.

Riley Reiff

When Bill Belichick was questioned earlier in the season about not addressing the offensive line in the offseason, he pointed to the signing of Riley Reiff. The Patriots signed Reiff in March, and it appeared the starting right tackle job was his to lose. He signed a one-year $5 million deal. Reiff has started 153 NFL games, including 10 last year as a member of the Chicago Bears. But by the end of the season, he was no longer starting for Chicago, despite a general lack of quality options on their roster.

And though the job was his to lose, Reiff lost it. He struggled in training camp. He was passed by Connor McDermott (who would ultimately be released) at right tackle and moved inside to guard. In the final preseason game, he injured his knee, forcing Reiff to begin the season on injured reserve. He returned for the Week 6 game against the Saints, played decently, and was injured again. He returned to practice this week, starting the 21-day clock for which he needs to be added back to the 53-man roster or released.

Calvin Anderson

Like Reiff, Calvin Anderson signed with the New England Patriots in free agency. He had spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Denver Broncos. Last season he played in 14 games, starting seven. He was only whistled for one penalty over 439 snaps. He signed a two-year, $7 million contact with the Patriots, with $4 million guaranteed.

Anderson missed all of training camp with an undisclosed illness. He returned just before the 53-man roster was finalized and was the starting right tackle for the first two weeks of the season. Unfortunately, Anderson struggled mightily. In week two against the Dolphins, he managed to stand out, in a negative way, among an underperforming group of offensive linemen. He has not seen any action on offense since. He is currently back on the Reserved/Injured list with an illness (unknown if it is the same one that kept him out of preseason).

Vederian Lowe

Lowe was traded by Minnesota to New England on Aug. 27, 2023, for a sixth-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. A Vikings sixth rounder out of Illinois in 2022, he appeared in four games as a rookie. When Trent Brown sat out Week 2 in concussion protocol, Belichick gave Lowe the start at left tackle. He played well enough against Miami that when Brown returned to the lineup, Lowe was moved over to start at right tackle, replacing the struggling Calvin Anderson. However, Lowe did not fair any better over there. In his first two starts he allowed 17 quarterback pressures and a sack.

But the Patriots left Lowe in the lineup for five games. He was deemed a better option than Anderson. It wasn’t until Week 7, when Onwenu was moved to right tackle, when Lowe was finally removed from the lineup. Pro Football Focus has Vederian Lowe ranked 80 out of 80 qualifying offensive tackles in the NFL this season.

Conor McDermott

McDermott was decent for the final six games of the 2022 season, when he started at right tackle for the Patriots. However, Conor McDermott was originally placed on season-ending Injured Reserve before the start of the season with an undisclosed injury. On Sept. 8 he reached an injury settlement with the Patriots, which removed him from IR and placed him on waivers. As a result of going through that process, he was able to return to an NFL team this season as long as he was able to pass a physical. On Oct. 17 the Patriots signed McDermott to the practice squad.

Conor McDermott has started two games for the Patriots since returning. He’s played left tackle the past two weeks in place of Trent Brown. If Brown remains out, and McDermott is going to be the replacement for him, he will eventually need to be added to the 53-man roster. At the least, McDermott seems to have shown he is able to be a third tackle on an NFL roster. He has used up two of his three roster elevations before a further decision needs to be made.

Sidy Sow

After the New England Patriots opted to ignore the more highly touted prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft, the ultimately selected Sow int he fourth round. He saw significant time at right tackle in the preseason, but struggled. With Anderson returning in week one, and both starting guards out injured, Sow got the start at right guard for his first NFL game. Unfortunately, Sidy Sow suffered a concussion in the game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The injury would keep him sidelined for the next two games, and he was a reserve for the next several games.

When Onwenu sat out against the Raiders, Sow got another start at right guard and performed well. With Onwenu shifting over to right tackle, Sow has been the starting right guard. He has performed well, specifically in the run game. It seems his NFL future is likely at the guard position.

Tyrone Wheatley, Jr.

Wheatley was a trade acquisition before final roster cutdowns. The Patriots sent running back Pierre Strong, Jr. to the Browns in exchange for the 6-foor-6, 320-pound offensive lineman. Bill Belichick said he could play both guard and tackle and was a hard worker. Despite dressing for the first two games, Wheatley only played a total of five snaps, all on special teams. He was then inactive each of the next three games. Prior to Week 6, the New England Patriots placed Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. on injured reserve with a knee injury. He has not returned to practice since.

Andrew Stueber

The New England Patriots selected Steuber in the seventh round (245 overall) in the 2022 NFL Draft. At 6-foot-7, 338 pounds, Steuber certain has the size to play in the NFL. He started the final 20 games of his college career for Michigan. He sat out the entire 2022 season on the Non-Football Injury list. This season he was waived on the final cutdowns, and was brought back to the practice squad, where he has remained. Stueber has yet to make his NFL debut.

What’s the OT Plan for 2024?

Football is the ultimate team sport, and they have gotten strong play out of their entire offensive line in one game out of ten this season. That one game was a victory over the Buffalo Bills. If Trent Brown was available, the tackle situation for the rest of 2023 would be obvious. If he remains out, will Conor McDermott get the start, and ultimately be added to the 53-man roster? And with Brown and Onwenu both headed for free agency in 2024, where does this leave the New England Patriots tackle situation moving forward? None of the other options have shown they’re ready to step in and take their place.

Marginal signings (Reiff, Anderson), marginal trades (Lowe, Wheatley) and marginal draft picks (Sow as a tackle, Steuber) have not solved the problem. Whether it is through free agency, trades or the 2024 NFL Draft, the Patriots are going to need to use significant capital to solidify this position in 2024 and beyond.