Patriots Draft Preview: Offensive Tackle

Coleman has the size and athleticism to development into a starting right tackle down the road

With the NFL draft merely 11 days away, I'll be counting down the days with a positional review of each of the Patriots projected draft needs. After starting yesterday with the running backs, I'm continuing the series with a position whose lack of depth became an Achilles heel of the 2015 team: offensive tackle.

Position: Offensive tackle

Level of need:
Short term: Intermediate/high
Long term: High

Positional overview: If projected starters Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are able to stay healthy and play to their potential, this position shouldn't be a problem next season. However, the team's lack of quality depth behind those two was exposed last season once Solder went down early in the season with a torn bicep. Marcus Cannon proved to be a liability as the team's swing tackle, regardless of what side of the line he played on, and he was still far better in protection than the cement-footed Cameron Fleming. Cannon's poor play combined with his sizeable cap hit ($4.75 million, 11th highest on the team) had many projecting him as an offseason release for cap space, but Cannon surprisingly remains on the roster. The team likely hopes that the return of OL coach Dante Scarnecchia will combine with a clean bill of health (Cannon played much of the season through a painful toe injury that affected his kick-step) to result in a bounce-back season for Cannon, who was an adequate starter at right tackle under Scarnecchia in 2013 when Vollmer missed significant time with a broken leg. Midseason pickup La'Adrian Waddle is the only other tackle with experience on the roster, and the team will be hoping he shows improvement now that he'll be two years removed from knee surgery.

Upgrading over Cannon at swing tackle would bring some immediate short-term mental peace to Pats fans still suffering nightmares of Von Miller, but there are also long-term reasons to restock the pipeline at tackle. Both Cannon and Vollmer are entering their contract years, creating a need for a developmental tackle to groom as an eventual starter on the right side. Vollmer could be re-signed next offseason, of course, but he'll be one of many Pats looking for a new deal and entering his age 33 season. He's also had his occasional struggles staying healthy over the past three seasons. They'll also have to worry about left tackle soon enough, as Solder has his deal expire following the 2017 season.

Out of reach:

Left without a first round pick, the Pats are unlikely to land one of the elite prospects at any positions. Laremy Tunsil (Ole Miss), Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame), Jack Conklin (Michigan State) and Taylor Decker (Ohio State) should all be long gone, and the Pats will likely miss out on Indiana's Jason Spriggs as well. Missing out on Spriggs will be disappointing, as he could have been a realistic draft target at pick 29 if not for the league's draconian Deflategate punishment. The Patriots offensive scheme asks a lot of it's linemen athletically, and Spriggs possesses the same type of rare athleticism that attracted them to Nate Solder back in 2011.

Day two targets:

Shon Coleman: Auburn

A former top high school recruit, Coleman's career was put on hold indefinitely when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma in 2010. After two years of intensive treatment and a redshirt season to get back into football shape, Coleman impressively not only returned to play but soon found himself contributing in the ultra-competitive SEC. After appearing in 8 games as eventual #2 pick Greg Robinson's backup in 2013, Coleman manned the left tackle spot for two straight season for the Eagles, earning second team All SEC honors in 2015. At 6'6" and 307 pounds with vines for arms (35 1/8"), Coleman has a prototypical NFL build, good functional athleticism and a mean streak that shows up in his run blocking. The raw tools and upside are plentiful, but he is still very much a project due to inconsistent technique. He could also use a year in an NFL weight room building up his lower body, and has spent much of the pre-draft process sidelined by an MCL tear. The Patriots would be an ideal fit for him, as he could likely have a year to develop under Scarnecchia before likely getting his chance to start at right tackle in 2017, similarly to how the Pats eased Solder in as a rookie in 2011. It's questionable whether he'll last long enough in the draft for the Pats to have a shot at him, but the Pats have been doing their homework on him just in case, as they used one of their 30 official private visits to check in on him and his surgically repaired knee.

La'Raven Clark: Texas Tech

Clark is raw but has upside for days
A classic boom-or-bust, high upside prospect, Clark has tantalizing physical tools but will require a lot of coaching up. However, the raw talent suggests that he could turn into a pro bowl caliber left tackle with the right coaching (paging Dr. Scar!). Size (6'5", 316), length (36 1/8" arms), athleticism: Clark checks off every box physically, but his technique is all over the place, leading to inconsistent play that belies his talent. He's another prospect who would benefit greatly from a year of learning under Scarnecchia before seeing significant playing time, but a pick which could play major dividends down the road. The Pats met with Clark back at the Senior Bowl.

Germain Ifedi: Texas A&M

A three year starter for the Aggies, Ifedi becomes the latest A&M prospect to make the jump to the NFL this year. Unlike many of his predecessors (Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Matthews, Luke Joekell), Ifedi does not project as a blindside protector, but rather as a mauling run blocker on the right side. Some scouts even question whether his best long-term fit might be at guard, where he was a freshman All-American before moving outside, but Ifedi's overall build (6'6", 324 pounds) and length (36" arms) scream tackle. Ifedi is another prospect who would add some nastiness to the Pats running game, but he's less athletic than the other prospects on this list and could struggle with speed early in his career. The Patriots recently used one of their 30 official private visits to get to know Ifedi better.

Jerald Hawkins: LSU

Another prospect on the raw side, Hawkins impressively earned the Tigers starting right tackle job as a freshman and held down that spot for two seasons before switching to the blindside in 2015 to replace the NFL bound La'el Collins. His play dramatically dipped with that switch, leading many scouts to question his decision to leave school early rather than staying for his senior season. Hawkins is another prospect with tools and upside who would benefit greatly from spending his first year as a pro learning behind the scenes. His technique is inconsistent and he could use a year in an NFL weight room to add more functional strength. However, Hawkins has a long, athletic frame (6'6", 305, 34 1/4" arms) with plenty of room to add bulk, with enough quickness to handle playing on the edge. I consider him a notch below some of the other prospects on this list right now, but he certainly has the upside to develop into a starting caliber right tackle if he takes well to Scarnecchia's tutelage. The Patriots have done their homework on him, as they met him at the combine and sent Scarnecchia to take in his pro day.

Joe Haeg: North Dakota State

Haeg excels in space, a staple of the Patriots blocking schemes
The other NFL prospect from North Dakota State, Haeg quietly kept Carson Wentz's blindside clean the past two years. Originally a walk-on, Haeg wound up a four year starter, beginning his career at right tackle before switching to blindside to replace NFL draftee Billy Turner as a junior. Haeg doesn't have quite the physical tools of some of the other prospects on this list (his 33 3/4" arms are on the short end for NFL tackles), but his athleticism makes him a good fit for the Patriots offense. He's excellent on the move, whether it be sealing off linebackers at the second level or pulling as a lead blocker on sweeps and screens, and his functional athleticism should make him competitive in protection. Other than the steep jump in competition, the biggest knock on Haeg is his playing strength. He's currently 6'6" and 304 pounds and could stand to add 10 pounds of muscle in the weight room before dealing with NFL pass rushers. However, those weaknesses could push him into the Patriots range at the end of the third round, where he'd be a terrific value as a player who could develop into a starter at either tackle position. The Pats zeroed in on Haeg early, as they spent plenty of time working with him at the Senior Bowl.

Day three targets:

Cole Turner: Harvard

A high school basketball player, Turner put that athleticism to good use on the gridiron, where he was rarely tested by the Ivy League competition he faced. That will obviously change with the drastic jump to the NFL level, but Turner has enough size, functional athleticism and on-field nastiness to develop into an NFL caliber tackle with good coaching. The Patriots seem to be onto this local prospect, as they used one of their 30 private visits on him after sending Scarnecchia to his pro day.

Brandon Shell: South Carolina

The great nephew of late Hall of Famer Art Shell, Brandon fits the big, mauling right tackle prototype to a T. While he did switch to the blindside his senior season, the 6'5", 324 pound Shell is best fit on the right side, where he has the frame and length (34 3/4" arms) to engulf opposing rushers. Shell is less athletic than the typical Patriots lineman, but he would bring some desired nastiness to their running game and comes with the upside to potentially develop into a starter down the road if all breaks well. The Patriots met with him at the combine.

Torian White: Hampton

A former highly touted recruit, White impressed in 2012 by starting all 14 games at left tackle for UCLA and was off to a dominant start in 2013 before suffering a season-ending broken ankle. His Bruins career came to a screeching halt a year later, as he was dismissed from the program following his 2014 arrest for alleged sexual misconduct. That led to his transfer to Hampton, where he played the past two seasons and was inconsistent, albeit with stretches of dominance mixed in. It remains to be seen if Robert Kraft would sign off on a player with his troubled history, but DraftInsider's Tony Pauline has reported that the Patriots have been amongst the teams showing the most interest in White. He could be a high upside role of the dice with a late round pick.

David Hedelin: Purdue

The Patriots have had success before with tackles from Purdue (think Matt Light) and could be hoping that lightning strikes twice with Hedelin. A junior college transfer from Sweden, Hedelin was thrown into the Boilermakers lineup in 2014, making 9 starts at left tackle, and he built on that experience with a solid senior season. The Patriots met with him following his pro day and could look to land him with a late round pick as a developmental prospect.

Caleb Benenoch: UCLA

An athletic prospect who fits the Patriots scheme, Benovich is coming off of a rock solid Bruins career. He earned second team freshman All-America honors in 2013 after starting the final 9 games of the season, and followed that up with a rock solid 2014 that earned him honorable mention All Pac 12 honors for his work at right tackle. Last year showcased his versatility, as he played 9 games at tackle and four at guard for the Bruins. He could use a year in a weight room to get stronger, but his athleticism makes him an excellent projection into the Patriots offense.

Tyler Johnstone: Oregon

Once thought of as a potential high draft pick, the highly athletic Johnstone suffered a torn ACL in the 2013 Alamo Bowl. Johnstone worked his way back and was on many preseason award watchlists at the start of 2014 season, but he unfortunately tore the same ACL during the first week of practices, leaving him sidelined for the entire season. Johnstone returned in 2015 to earn All Pac 12 first team honors, but scouts saw a far less athletic player on tape than they did prior to his injuries. He could be worth a late round role of the dice to see if the athleticism that once made him a standout prospect returns as he enters his second year removed from knee surgery.