The Patriots used much of the third day of the NFL Draft to round out their depth along their offensive line, taking three players who covered each of the positions. In taking Justin Herron in the sixth round, New England got an experienced and athletic tackle who could project inside as he transitions into the pro game.
Herron set a Wake Forest record for games started over the course of his career. After red-shirting his freshman year, Herron was a stalwart for the Demon Deacons at left tackle, including being a key on their record-setting offense in his junior year that set school marks for total yards and points in a season.
A torn ACL in the opening game of his senior season forced him miss games for the first time, but it allowed him to return for a graduate season and he made the most of it, being named captain and earning a nod to the Senior Bowl.
Wake Forest offensive line coach Nick Tabacca felt Herron's strengths started with his consistency in practice.
"Showed up every day, very consistent," said Tabacca. "It was kind of a freak thing that he hurt his knee in the season opener. But other than that, he started 51 games in his career and it wasn't like he was a guy that just showed up on Saturdays. He'd be in there and grind and put the work in all week and very consistent as a practice player."
That kind of work might be necessary for Herron to win a job with the Patriots. Herron said he spoke with coach Cole Popovich and scout Taylor Redd at the Senior Bowl as well as at the Scouting Combine, where they expressed an eagerness to see how versatile Herron could be.
"Honestly, the conversations were just be ready for any positions that we throw you in," said Herron of his early contact with the Patriots. "They told me that they've seen me play tackle, but they're also interested to see if I can play any other positions."
A three-time All-ACC Academic team member, Herron has the processor to make the position shift. While his quick feet are an immediate skill that jumps out, they're not his only intriguing trait.
"He's smart enough and has enough tools that he can play multiple positions on your line," said Tabacca. "Between his arm length and how well he moves his feet and how well he learns, he could have the chance to shine at multiple positions."
Like most rookie offensive linemen, he'll need to refine his technique and improve his strength and hand usage, but he has the kind of movement skills to build off of. Herron's father and two uncles all played college basketball at Villanova and Justin inherited similar athleticism, with quick feet and standout agility.
"He was a really, really, really consistent pass protector for us," said Tabacca. "And I think that had to do with his feet, his movement skills. But I do think that he came a long way as a run blocker too. I think that he is a strong kid."
Off the field, Herron brings the kind of leadership traits that Patriots picks often exemplify.
"Being a captain this past season was a huge honor and it definitely taught me a lot about myself and it taught me more about how can I communicate with players and what it means to be a leader," said Herron shortly after being selected by the Patriots.
"Coming in, I'm a rookie and I'm just planning on doing the best that I can and just getting better every day and learning from all the vets that are up there and being respectful. So, that's where I see myself at the moment, and that's where I feel like my role will be."