Stability has been a hallmark of the New England dynasty.
Coach and quarterback top the list, of course, but you already knew that. Nearly two decades worth of dominance isn’t possible without Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in place.
The Patriots have been fortunate in several other positions as well, be it kicker, with the seamless transition from Adam Vinatieri to Stephen Gostkowski, or slot receiver, from Troy Brown to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman.
Left tackle can’t be slept on, either, going all the way back to Bruce Armstrong in the late 1980s. Next up was Matt Light, who spent 11 seasons protecting Brady’s blindside after being drafted in the second round in 2001, with 2011 first-round pick Nate Solder stepping in after Light retired following Super Bowl XLVI.
Solder’s departure via free agency for the New York Giants this past off-season was supposed to test the theory of stability at the most important position along the offensive line. Instead, one of the players New England brought in to compete for Solder’s spot has not only helped the offensive line not skip a beat, he’s wound up being the Patriots’ finest import from last spring.
Trent Brown, originally a seventh-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2015, has always looked the part of a franchise left tackle given his 6-foot-8, 380-pound frame.
After playing predominantly right tackle by the Bay, he finally blossomed on the left side of the line in 2018, starting all 16 games for New England and playing in 97.3 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. Only Joe Thuney (who played every snap), David Andrews and Brady played in more.
“It’s tough going to a new team, but he’s done a good job with the playbook,” said Thuney, who lines up next to Brown at left guard. “He’s a good guy to play next to. He picks things up quickly, he’s strong and quick.”
The Patriots acquired Brown at last spring’s draft, along with a 2018 fifth-round pick, in exchange for a 2018 third-round pick. From Day 1 of training camp in July, Brown lined up with the starters. If there ever was a competition between Brown and Matt Tobin, LaAdrian Waddle or Isaiah Wynn, it was over before it even started.
“He definitely has the skills to play out there,” Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said late in the preseason. “There’s no doubt. He’s long and he’s big. He’s a powerful guy. We like what we see, and we’ll just have to see how it all looks when everything gets going here.”
When it got going, it looked great. Brown allowed Brady to be sacked 3.5 times in the regular season -- for what it’s worth, Solder allowed Eli Manning to be sacked eight times in 2018 -- and committed only five penalties, fewer than both 2016 and ‘17 with San Francisco.
He assumed the most important position on an offensive line that ranked fourth in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, part of a group that allowed Brady to be sacked only 21 times -- down from 35 in 2017.
“Over the course of the whole season, I settled in,” Brown said. “It’s not really a matter of being comfortable, it’s a matter of playing ball.”
Along with right tackle Marcus Cannon, he’s coming off of perhaps his toughest assignment of the season when tasked with stopping Chargers edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Both tackles passed their test with flying colors, holding the duo to no sacks and just one pressure on Brady.
Brown was short in describing what it took to slow down the fearsome duo, attributing it to “technique, [for] 60 minutes.”
The Patriots still have -- at least -- one game remaining this season, but it’s never too early to start talking free agency, and Brown represents one of the biggest decisions facing the team come March. He was a bargain this season, with a cap hit of just over $1.9 million (not to keep picking on Solder, but he counted $10 million against the cap this season and will count $17 million against it next year for the Giants...at age 31).
Brown, who turns 26 in April, is in line for a massive pay day in his first foray into unrestricted free agency. Not bad for the 244th overall pick four years ago.
“I mean, for me, being a seventh-round [draft pick] and being traded for a third-rounder to the Patriots, of all teams, I’d say that speaks volumes of increasing value,” Brown said in training camp.
His true value will be determined come March. Until then, Brown is tasked with keeping Brady upright en route to a potential ninth Super Bowl appearance.
For all of the turmoil which unfolded last off-season within the walls of Gillette Stadium, the acquisition of Brown can’t be overlooked when it comes to the importance of why the team’s been so successful in overcoming it.