NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
Under the tutelage of offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia the Patriots’ offensive line units have consistently ranked among the top groups in the league.
Could Alabama’s Barrett Jones be a smart addition in 2013?
New England enters the 2012 season well-stocked despite left tackle Matt Light’s recent retirement. 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder appears to be locked in as Light’s successor as the starting left tackle; Solder appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, making two starts on the left side and 11 on the right side.
Sebastian Vollmer will assume right tackle duties in 2011; the 2009 second-round pick looked elite for much of the 2010 season (16 starts) but battled a back injury throughout the 2011 season and appeared in just six games. Logan Mankins is locked in as the team’s long-term left guard after signing a six-year contract extension last August.
Brian Waters will start at right guard if he decides to return for another season – Waters was New England’s most impressive offensive lineman last year but turned 35 shortly after New England’s Super Bowl loss and is only signed through 2012.
Dan Connolly took over for Dan Koppen at center in 2011 and performed well over 11 starts in 13 total appearances; Connolly’s play earned him a three-year contract extension this offseason which will pay him just over $3 million per season.
New England could still opt to target a top offensive lineman in 2013 should the opportunity present itself. Brian Waters’ impending retirement will open one hole on the line and New England will face a difficult decision regarding Sebastian Vollmer this season.
Vollmer is entering the final year of his rookie contract and will be looking for a lucrative long-term contract extension. A franchise player designation could cause friction between the organization and Vollmer (Logan Mankins and Wes Welker come to mind) but New England may be unwilling to commit long-term to a player who had trouble staying healthy last season.
Upgrading over Dan Connolly/Dan Koppen at center is another option and Connolly could also slide over to right guard if an elite center becomes available. Versatile Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones would be a logical fit for the Patriots should they opt to target the trenches in next April’s NFL Draft.
Jones was forced to redshirt as a true freshman in 2008 after injuring his shoulder three games in the season. As a redshirt freshman in 2009 he started all 14 games at right guard for the eventual national champions. Jones made 11 starts at right guard as a sophomore in 2010 before suffering a high ankle sprain and missing the final two games of the season. His play earned him first-team All-SEC honors and he was additionally named a first-team Academic All-American.
Last season Jones primarily played left tackle but took snaps at left guard, center and right tackle as well. Jones started 10 games in total (missing two because of another ankle sprain) and was named the recipient of the Outland Trophy. Jones was also a unanimous first-team All-American selection and graded out at 90% on the season.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban recently announced that Jones will move to center for his senior season – if he remains healthy Jones could finish his collegiate career with as many as 48 starts.
Jones has impressive size for an interior offensive lineman. He stands 6’5” tall and weighs about 310 pounds. His height and weight are adequate for an offensive tackle prospect as well but Jones would likely be best suited inside as it appears that his arms are a little bit short to remain on the outside.
New England’s offense prominently features interior offensive linemen who pull in order to make blocks in the running game and on screen passes; moving and making blocks in space are two of Jones’ biggest strengths on the field. While his athleticism is only average and he may struggle to protect the edge in the NFL if asked to play offensive tackle, his short-area movement skills are more than adequate to seal off defenders and help clear lanes for his running backs.
Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were both extremely effective running the ball behind Jones in Alabama’s run-oriented offense. Jones additionally demonstrates the ability to execute difficult “hook” blocks effectively, a skill many NFL offensive guards do not possess.
As a pass protector, Jones displays a very strong anchor and is able to prevent defenders from driving him off of the ball. This would be particularly appealing to New England considering the increasing number of defenses which run three man fronts with massive nose tackles occupying the middle of the offensive line. Jones’ grip strength is impressive and he can prevent pass rushers from disengaging once he has locked on; the ability to sustain blocks is especially critical at the pro level because passing in the NFL requires quarterbacks to go through more progressions than in college.
As a converted offensive tackle Jones possesses above-average mirror skills for the interior offensive line, although he fares better against power rushers than speed rushers. Jones is a very fundamentally sound player who is quick to set up in protection, makes very few mental mistakes, and understands leverage concepts.
New England has frequently targeted offensive linemen with experience playing left tackle, where Jones lined up as a junior. Additionally, Jones’ versatility, accolades, work under Nick Saban, and experience against SEC competition will interest Bill Belichick, who has shown a willingness to spend high draft picks on offensive linemen.
Jones is a more talented player than incumbent center Dan Connolly and is intelligent enough to make protection calls as well as powerful enough to anchor against the increasing number of NFL nose tackles; Connolly could shift over to right guard or provide depth at center. The Patriots could also play Jones at right guard, where his excellent pulling and trapping skills would be showcased; Jones’ extensive collegiate experience would allow him to step in as a starter immediately, which appears to be an extremely important quality among New England’s top draft choices.
Barrett Jones is a known quantity who has excelled against the most fearsome collegiate defenses in the country and represents one option for the Patriots in 2013.