The Patriots began their on-field preparations for Sunday's home-opener against the Baltimore Ravens on Wednesday with a noteworthy absence along the offensive line.
Before practice was underway, reports trickled out that the Patriots had traded OT Justin Herron to the Raiders and would swap picks in the 2024 draft with Las Vegas as compensation.
New England selected the third-year pro in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, but Herron didn't seize a real opportunity in training camp to push Isaiah Wynn for a role in the starting five. Then, following some camp bumps and bruises, Herron found himself in a battle with 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste for the top swing tackle spot down the stretch this summer.
Cajutes' foot speed to mirror pass rushers and reach or climb to blocks on the move gives some impressive physical tools. Despite some rawness to his blocking paths to reach his landmarks in the running game, Cajuste showed more promise than Herron, who struggled to protect his edge in pass protection during training camp.
Ultimately, Herron became expendable because Cajuste either passed him on the depth chart or the Patriots felt good about their depth at tackle in other ways. For example, the team signed veteran tackle Marcus Cannon to the practice squad last week, and early returns suggest that the 34-year-old is in good shape and could contribute to the team this season if needed.
After spending nine seasons with the Patriots and winning three Super Bowl championships, Cannon was with the Texans for the 2021 season after sitting out the COVID year in 2020. He spent the second half of last season on injured reserve due to a back injury, but it's hard to envision the Patriots making this move without a healthy Cannon in the mix.
Furthermore, the Patriots could find more tackle depth behind starters Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn by kicking third-year guard Mike Onwenu back outside to tackle. Onwenu's rock-solid form in pass protection and people-moving blocks in the running game are littered all over New England's film. The 2020 sixth-round pick has been the Pats best offensive lineman through two games.
Although Onwenu has found a home at right guard, the Pats could prefer making a hole at guard rather than at tackle if there were to be an injury. In that instance, veteran James Ferentz would be the favorite to fill in at right guard, while rookie Chasen Hines is also an option.
Trading away a depth piece along the offensive line might've not been our first guess on how the Patriots would get there. Still, it's also worth noting that interior pass-rusher Daniel Ekuale's two-game suspension has ended, and Ekuale was out at practice with the team on Wednesday.
To activate Ekuale to the 53-man roster, the Patriots needed to free up a roster spot, and that's more than likely what triggered the Herron trade, as Ekuale will take his place.
Last season, Ekuale was a regular game-day elevation from the practice squad and appeared in eight games, including the playoff loss to the Bills last January. Ekuale registered three sacks in 77 pass-rush snaps a year ago, with 67 percent of his plays coming in the passing game.
The Patriots lose a layer of depth along the offensive line after sending Herron to the Raiders, but the move likely means the coaching staff likes what it's seeing from Cannon and Cajuste.