As a rookie, Patriots quarterback Mac Jones took a lot of hits during the first half of 2021, as his offensive line took on several iterations due to injuries and COVID circumstances. Around mid-season, though, the line finally congealed around a group of five players that included guards Ted Karras and Shaq Mason. From that point on, Jones enjoyed more consistent protection.
The 2022 NFL League Year officially begins at 4 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, but media reports during this so-called "legal tampering period" before the start of free agency indicate that both Karras and Mason will be playing elsewhere this coming autumn. The free agent Karras reportedly agreed a 3-year contract with Cincinnati (it doesn't become official until the start of the league year), while Mason has been dealt to Tampa Bay in exchange for a fifth-round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft.
With right tackle Trent Brown exploring the free agent marketplace this month, the Patriots have just two players – center David Andrews and left tackle Isaiah Wynn – on last season's starting offensive line under contract. Brown could re-sign with New England, but he could just as easily cash in with another club, as he did three years ago after helping the Patriots win their sixth Super Bowl.
Even if Brown were to return, how will New England fill the holes that now exist on the O-line? Some internal candidates could emerge, including Mike Onwenu, who started the 2021 season as the starting left guard before being supplanted by Karras. Onwenu is a versatile player who moved briefly to right tackle in place of a then-injured Brown, but mostly saw action as a jumbo-package blocking tight end.
Justin Herron, who, like Onwenu, is entering his third professional season, could be a consideration as well for one of the guard spots. However, if Brown does not return to Foxborough, Herron might be asked to remain at tackle, where he started at both the left and right sides at times last season. Veteran Yasir Durant, a late summer 2021 acquisition who played sparingly thereafter, and 2021 rookie Will Sherman could also vie for increased roles.
The Patriots, of course, could look to address the interior situation through free agency or the draft.
Former Patriot Jermaine Eluemunor played last season in Las Vegas but is now a free agent and could be an affordable consideration to return. An older, more experienced veteran such as Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, might be a temporary solution as well. As for the draft, it might be difficult to envision the Patriots taking a guard with the 21st overall selection, but perhaps a local product like Boston College's Zion Johnson, who at 6-3, 310 might have position versatility, would be an intriguing prospect.
These are just a few off-the-top-of-my-head solutions that come to this writer's mind, but whatever the Patriots do to address their suddenly urgent offensive line needs, the only certainty as of this posting is that Jones' primary blockers will look quite different come September. And finding suitable replacements for quality, system-smart starters like Karras and Mason could take some time and experimenting throughout the spring and summer practice sessions.