New England Patriots' O-line shaping up as strength after Trent Brown trade

What Trent Brown's return means for the Patriots (0:41)

Adam Schefter breaks down Trent Brown's return to the Patriots in a trade with the Raiders. (0:41)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the final, unforgettable images of the 2020 NFL season was Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes running for his life in Super Bowl LV behind a banged-up and revamped offensive line.

It was a reminder that even one of the NFL's greatest players can't do it without capable protection.

Of course, longtime New England Patriots followers need no reminders of this. Super Bowl XLII remains one of the most painful memories in franchise history, when the New York Giants overwhelmed them up front, made life miserable for quarterback Tom Brady, and crushed all hopes of a 19-0 season.

This brings us to coach Bill Belichick's first decisive move of 2021: A trade to reacquire mammoth offensive tackle Trent Brown (6-foot-8, 380 pounds), who was excellent for the Patriots in 2018. New England is sending a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Las Vegas Raiders for Brown and a 2022 seventh-rounder, a source told ESPN.

It is the first Patriots domino of many expected to fall, and it's a big one for those who believe football games are won at the line of scrimmage.

Count ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick in that category.

Add Michael Lombardi, former Patriots assistant to the coaching staff, in that group as well, as he said immediately following Super Bowl LV, "The essence of the game will always be the essence of the game: Whoever controls both lines will win championships."

Riddick and Lombardi come from the Belichick School of team building -- Riddick having played for Belichick in Cleveland in the 1990s, when Lombardi was the Browns' director of player personnel -- so the reacquisition of Brown likely comes as little surprise to them as Belichick embarks on one of the most important offseasons in his 21 years in New England.

The needs are still plentiful, with quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and defensive line headlining the list. But if you're going to start a multilayered rebuild, it never hurts to begin on the offensive line. The O-line to a football team is what a foundation is to a house; before you can start decorating, best to make sure everything is on sturdy ground.

Starting guard Joe Thuney is expected to be an unrestricted free agent, but Brown's return opens a plethora of options for the Patriots, who traditionally employ a "best five" philosophy to get their top linemen on the field regardless of position.

  • Brown can play left or right tackle. He'll be a starter at one of those spots and is an elite player when healthy and motivated.

  • Veteran Shaq Mason is locked at right guard.

  • And 2020 sixth-round pick Mike Onwenu has already proven to be a top-5 player, so he can be slotted at left guard or right tackle (my hunch would be left guard to replace Thuney, which is an obvious blow to the Patriots, but allows them to reallocate money to other positions of greater need).

  • In a perfect Patriots world, heart-and-soul foundational piece David Andrews will return at center. He's a free agent and the team's initial offer didn't entice Andrews to sign, which reflects there's work to be done to make a return happen.

  • And the final signature piece is 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, a top-5 lineman whose biggest struggle has been staying healthy. His top fits are left tackle, and then left guard.

The Patriots always explore different O-line configurations in training camp, so there's time to see how it shakes out. A more immediate roster-building question will be whether veteran right tackle Marcus Cannon, who opted out of the 2020 season, is a potential cut candidate (saving about $6.3 million).

Depth will also be important.

Backup/swing spots at tackle will be vied for by Cannon, 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Herron, fourth-year player Korey Cunningham and 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste. Marcus Martin, Najee Toran and Ross Reynolds are the current interior backups.

O-line chatter usually doesn't move the needle. It won't sizzle like the signing of a top quarterback, wide receiver or tight end.

But Super Bowl LV proved its importance, and in that sense, the Patriots' 2021 offseason is off to a positive start.