Contrary to discussions all offseason about improving the coaching and offensive skill talent around quarterback Mac Jones, the key to New England's offensive resurgence starts in the trenches.
The Patriots have experienced a brain drain on the offensive coaching staff with the retirement of legendary O-Line coach Dante Scarnecchia following the 2019 season. Then, Scarnecchia's replacement, Carmen Bricillo, followed former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to Las Vegas after the 2021 season, leaving the Pats with a void at that post.
After former assistant coach Matt Patricia coached the offensive line last season, the Patriots hope that newly appointed offensive line coach Adrian Klemm will steady the ship. Klemm is a former Patriots offensive lineman and has coached the position in the pros and college, bringing the experience and knowledge necessary to lead the group this season.
While adding Klemm to offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's staff, the Patriots are also banking on a few personnel tweaks to yield better results.
Last season, New England went from tied for seventh in Pro Football Focus's run-blocking grading (79.8) in 2021 to 20th (56.7). Furthermore, Jones's passer rating while under pressure plummeted to 38th among 40 qualified quarterbacks (35.1).
More goes into steadying Jones's play while under duress than better blocking, such as improving their pre-snap plan and post-snap options ("hot" receivers) to exploit blitzes. But the Pats third-year quarterback was fifth in PFF passing grade from clean pockets even in an up-and-down second season; keep Mac clean, and the passing offense will produce.
With that being a central focus for an offensive turnaround, it was surprising to see the Patriots opt to target mainly interior offensive linemen in the 2023 NFL Draft rather than offensive tackles, which is a perceived weaker spot with the starting trio on the inside solidified.
Fourth-rounder Sidy Sow could play some tackle in New England, but the Patriots didn't directly address that position in the draft. Based on their actions and words, the team likes their veteran options at tackle.
"We were able to add a couple players (Calvin Anderson, Riley Reiff), able to retain a couple players (Conor McDermott), and have one holdover (Trent Brown). So we've got some good veteran guys there," Patriots director of player personnel Matt Groh said before April's draft. "Looking forward to working with them. See what we got in some of these new guys and go from there."
Recently, the team released 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste after signing him to a one-year restricted free-agent tender, further solidifying their trust in their two unrestricted free-agent signings.
Although it's fair to be skeptical that this group will hold up against top-tier edge rushers, newcomers Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson were New England's two notable additions and at least one of the free-agent signings projects to start this season at offensive tackle.
Starting with Reiff, the 34-year-old is entering his 12th NFL season and will bring experience, toughness, and tone-setting physicality that made him a leader in the locker room in his past stops.
After spending the 2021 campaign with the AFC Champs in Cincinnati, Reiff started ten games at right tackle for the Chicago Bears last season, and he'll likely compete for a starting job on the right side once again.
Reiff signed a one-year deal with the Pats in free agency following a season where the Patriots started four different players at right tackle, with former first-rounder Isaiah Wynn, veteran Marcus Cannon, 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste, and Conor McDermot starting games.
Until McDermott, who the team signed off the Jets practice squad mid-season, steadied the position down the stretch, the Patriots struggled to find a viable solution at right tackle. Although his foot speed limits his range at this stage of his career, Reiff's physical skill set fits the mold.
"I've learned from some great veterans that passed that down to me. I just try to come to work every day, put in a hard day's work, and usually, the rest sorts itself out," Reiff said of his mindset. "I've seen quite a bit. There's always something to learn whether you're a rookie or Year 12. I'm just excited to work with the group of guys we have, the coaches, and that starts here in offseason workouts."
In a similar vein to fourth-round selection Jake Andrews, Reiff's finishing playing style could also come from his background as a wrestler. Reiff explained the benefits of wrestling and how it translates to offensive line play by saying, "The hand fighting, the hips. In my case, I think it's more the mental toughness from it. Staying low, getting in those awkward positions, fighting out of them. But I think the main thing is the mental toughness. It's not an easy sport to do."
Along with potentially filling a need on the right side of the offensive line, Reiff's connections to the Patriots that brought him here in free agency harken back to his days at the University of Iowa. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has a long-standing friendship with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, while Ferentz's son, James, is entering his sixth season in New England.
Reiff was college roommates with Feretz, referring to the Pats center as "one of my best friends."
Based on the personal connections and on-field fit, Reiff eventually finding his way to Foxboro in his NFL career doesn't come as a major surprise. There's a long way to go before the Patriots play a game, but Reiff has the inside track to start at right tackle this season.
Another potential offensive line configuration on the table features the athletic upside of Anderson at left tackle, with hulking veteran Trent Brown flipping back over to right tackle.
As a late bloomer, Anderson has a terrific athletic profile with an 8.70 relative athletic score out of ten at his Pro Day at the University of Texas.
Anderson has taken a few years to find enough consistency with his technique to factor in as a starter. Last season, he made a career-high seven starts for Denver at left tackle, and his explosive movements and range to protect his edge pop off the film as starting-caliber traits.
Speaking to the media for the first time since signing a two-year deal in March, Anderson recalled a brief first stint in Foxboro after signing with the Pats as an undrafted rookie in 2019.
"There was a very big first impression with the 'Do Your Job' slogan," Anderson told reporters about his first stint in New England. "As a rookie, you have to learn the ropes somehow, and I ended up benefiting from learning that the NFL is a business real quick. I went off, created some value, and now I'm back hopefully to give that value back to the Patriots."
"I didn't have the time really to sob over it or anything," Anderson said of his release from the Patriots. "It was a very quick turnaround. You have to get back up on your feet if you're going to make it work, so I was forced into having to turn it into a learning experience very quickly. I was able to appreciate how much of a benefit that was going through that."
For Anderson, his initial release from the Patriots "made the chip on my shoulder bigger. You always have a chip on your shoulder going undrafted. When I finally got picked up after that, I came back with much more of a business mentality."
Along with being a Rubik's cube savant, Anderson became a reliable starter for the Broncos in his third season while legendary offensive line coach Mike Munchak trained him to play left and right tackle.
"As an offensive lineman, you want to find a rhythm, so when you start playing games consecutively, that helps you get in a rhythm. What do I do pre-snap? How do I study my opponent? What kind of things do I prepare for? How am I going to set or how are we going to use the snap count? Are we away, or are we home?"
"You start getting into a rhythm for those kinds of things. I think that's what started helping. You start to get in the rhythm of the season, you know you have games coming up, you know you're playing, and it helps you get more comfortable with those things so you can focus on the task on the field, which is obviously the most difficult part."
"One of the benefits I had about being coached by Mike Munchak is real early in my career, he started me playing both sides and learning how to play both and developing both of those toolboxes," Anderson said of his time in Denver.
Anderson also spoke very highly of new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, explaining his appreciation for coaches who played the position in the NFL.
"I love AK so far. You can tell he played, you can tell he understands the positions we're in that we are put in on the field, and I always have an appreciation for guys who have understood first-hand what it's like to be playing. He has a good knowledge of the game. He's one of those guys that can understand how you learn and how all the different guys learn and tailor the teaching to that," Anderson said of his new offensive line coach.
The flexibility to play either tackle spot will help Anderson earn a role in New England. However, his athleticism and explosiveness out of his stance are two hallmark left tackle traits for the Patriots. With a good spring and summer, Anderson could open the door for the Pats to play Brown at right tackle.
From this perspective, a starting five, from left to right, has the most upside on paper: Anderson, Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu, and Trent Brown.
Either way, the Patriots are looking at an offensive tackle depth chart that likely includes Anderson, Brown, Reiff, and McDermott, with fourth-rounder Sidy Sow as a tackle-guard hybrid making up the initial roster. It's also worth mentioning 2022 seventh-rounder Andrew Stueber, who is healthy and has an outside chance of earning a roster spot.
The Patriots brass have been saying all offseason through their words and actions that they're comfortable with their group at offensive tackle.
Now, we'll need to wait and see if their confidence in the veteran additions was the correct strategy.