For the entirety of Tom Brady's career as the starting quarterback in New England two men – Matt Light and Nate Solder – have been entrenched at left tackle protecting the future Hall of Fame quarterback's valuable blindside.
Sure, there were injury-forced fill-ins at various points along the way. Never though, until now, was there essentially an open competition for the key job on the offensive line protecting the G.O.A.T.
But with Solder having moved on to the Giants on a $60 million free agent contract this spring, the expected starter at left tackle remains an unknown at this point, even to legendary Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
The options for the role are led by two very different guys with very different skill sets. There is veteran trade addition Trent Brown, a 6-8, 380-pound behemoth who played primarily right tackle in his three prior seasons in San Francisco. On the other end of the size spectrum New England has first-pick Isaiah Wynn, who at 6-2, 308-pounds lacks the height and length that's been common with Patriots tackles in recent years.
Though the battle for the left tackle job may be the most important that New England will have this summer, Scarnecchia didn't sound too worried about the unknown when he met with the local media last week at Gillette Stadium. He did, though, lament the fact that both Wynn and Brown are among injured linemen not taking part the early stages of the offseason program.
"I'm just gonna make this really clear, OK? I really like the guys we have here right now," Scarnecchia said. "OK? I mean I really like the guys we have here right now. That's the good news. The bad news is we can't work with some of them until training camp starts because we have two guys with shoulders, we have a guy with a bad foot and on and on and on. But that's the hand we've been dealt. When training camp comes around they are all going to be out there.
"And I'm really excited about working with these guys. I want to make that really clear to everybody. We got the guys we got. And I'm happy with it. I don't know what it's going to look like. But I'm really happy with it because I like the way they work. I like the people. I think they are going to do everything we ask them to do. And that's all I care about. Then we'll see what we can do from there. So we'll find out."
Along the way to Scarnecchia's preference of settling on a clear five guys who can develop some continuity, it will be found out whether the undersized Wynn has what it takes to play tackle in the NFL. After a couple impressive years at guard for Georgia, Wynn was All-SEC left tackle last fall and the veteran coach downplayed the lack of measurables that had many presuming on draft weekend would lead to the youngster returning to the inside at the next level.
In fact the coach broke into an impromptu, hands-on blocking demonstration when a questioner asked about the value of height and length at left tackle.
"We'd like to see them as tall and as long as they can possibly be," Scarnecchia began. "But, you know, does he have the skill to play it? Does he have enough length to play it? What's long enough?"
Scarnecchia went on to show how arm extension, punch and blocking technique can make the difference between 35- and 37-inch arms essentially meaningless. Wynn, according to his pro day results, enters the NFL with 33-inch arms.
"I think that [expletive]'s way overrated," Scarnecchia said. "I really do. I'm not saying every tackle you have should have 20-inch arms but I'm saying maybe there are some minimums. We think we have the guys that we have that we are training at that position all fall within those standards. Matt Light's arms were 33 inches and he played 10 years in this league."
Brown, who 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan once called one of the best pass protection tackles he's ever seen, will have to prove that his immense size doesn't keep him from doing what he needs to do athletically on the left side.
Wynn and Brown may not be prototypical, but that certainly doesn't mean they can't do the job.
"What's the mold look like? Somebody tell me what the mold looks like. OK. And if you only draft to that mold, I'm not sure that's the smartest thing to do," Scarnecchia said. "We like all the guys we have. We're going to give specifically Isaiah a chance to play left tackle. We're going to give him a chance to play guard. And we're going to move Trent from the right side to the left side, from the left side to the right side. We're going to see what it looks like. That's what training camp and preseason is for. So we'll see what it all looks like."
Scarnecchia did acknowledge that the team's preference was to keep Marcus Cannon at the right tackle spot he's held down in recent years and included returning veteran LaAdrian Waddle in the conversation for reps on the right side.
He also admitted that replacing the former first-round pick Solder, coming off arguably his best year, is a tall task.
"It's a big challenge, because you get in a real good comfort zone with him and especially the way Nate played over the last half of last season," Scarnecchia said. "He played really well because he finally learned to use his hands the way we wanted him to use them. He really got into a good comfort zone. There is a lot of work that goes into that, on his part especially. So there he is. He's been given this opportunity and he's taken advantage of it for he and his family. Now the next thing is we have to replace him. We have guys that we hope will be able to step in there and do what you have to do every year at this time. You lose some good players; you have to replace them. That's what we are faced with now."
It's a different challenge at the tackle position than the Patriots have faced at left tackle, specifically, in a long time, especially with Bruce Armstrong having held down the spot prior to Light and Solder.
And the sooner Scarnecchia can find and settle in on his five guys for the trench task at hand in 2018, the better it will be. But he also knows that having Wynn (shoulder), Brown (shoulder) Thuney (foot) and Cannon miss offseason work to injury will delay the process.
"I think it will be all right. I know it will be all right. We'll find them. We'll find five guys," Scarnecchia concluded with a laugh, three-plus decades of coaching serving as the foundation for his confidence. "We'll find five guys to put out there."