Patriots training camp countdown — No. 9: How will the offensive line fare without Dante Scarnecchia?

Talent is abundant, but health is crucial

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired during the offseason after coaching for 47 years, including 34 in Foxboro. Nancy Lane / Boston Herald File
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Each day leading up to the start of camp, the Herald will explore one of the biggest questions facing the Patriots this summer. Several pertain to the offense, which held the team back in 2019 and will feature a new quarterback this season. Others cover the defense and special teams, units whose success should hinge on the play of a few players and/or positions.

Once the Patriots hit the field, here’s what they must learn before the 2020 season kicks off.

How good will the offensive line be without Dante Scarnecchia?

The Patriots’ O-line wasn’t very good for much of last season — and that was with Scarnecchia.

Losing starting center David Andrews, who was out for the year with blood clots in his lungs, had a significant impact. Having starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn miss half the year with turf toe also didn’t help. Neither did having the usually sturdy right side duo of Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon underperform, largely due to injury.

It took all of Scarnecchia’s magic to right the ship toward the latter part of the season. But he’s now retired after a 34-year stint with the team, and 47 years overall in the NFL. Lower-level assistants Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo are taking over for the legend.

While there’s no one who can truly fill Scar’s shoes, Popovich and Bricillo at least have a fighting chance, even in an ongoing pandemic.

For starters, they’re not likely to change the basic blocking schemes and techniques the players are familiar with playing under Scarnecchia. Popovich and Bricillo have both worked under the legendary coach, so that’s a plus.

Second, Andrews is planning to return, and with Joe Thuney sticking around, playing on the one-year franchise tag salary ($14.78 million), the starting group should get a boost. With the exception of Wynn, who is entering his third season, the other linemen have played together four seasons. That familiarity will also benefit the new coaches.

When healthy, this is one of the better starting offensive lines in the NFL. And with a new quarterback taking over, it’s even more important for them to block well to establish a running game, and also protect Cam Newton, the likely starter, when passing. Again, if the starters are healthy, it’s not outlandish to assume they’ll get the job done.

Popovich and Bricillo will have to sort out the backup situations, finding the best swing tackle and guard, not to mention a fill-in center, to round out the depth chart.

Most of their choices will come from a largely inexperienced group, be it several rookies chosen this year (Dustin Woodard, Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron), along with others from last year’s rookie class (Yodny Cajuste and Hjalte Froholdt).

Sometimes the greatest trick for an offensive line coach is having the subs capable of filling in without missing a beat. With limited on-field time due to COVID-19, it will be tougher getting all the backups on the same page.

Then, there’s the quarterback situation.

For the past two decades, the offensive line has benefited from having a quarterback who made quick reads and delivered the ball in lightning-fast fashion. Tom Brady had one of the fastest triggers in the league. And he rarely, if ever, moved off his spot.

With Newton, a far more mobile passer, Popovich and Bricillo will have to help the players adjust to blocking for a quarterback who can be a moving target.

How will all of that translate?

“The one thing about an offensive line, ultimately, you have to get five guys to play as one,” said ESPN analyst and former Patriots offensive lineman Damien Woody. “The only way you usually do that, you have to rep together, you have to practice together, which you’re not doing in the pandemic. So it’s going to be a challenge for the Patriots, and all the other teams as well. But when you have a new O-line coach, and a pandemic, it’s not the best of circumstances.”

If the starters remain healthy and intact, that will be the ticket for Popovich and Bricillo making an effective transition. If the starters play up to form, the line should be fine, unless Scar’s successors wind up being forced to dip into the pool of subs. Then, all bets are off.