By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- As of Tuesday, Marcus Cannon is your starting right tackle for the New England Patriots. And with the possibility of Sebastian Vollmer's career being in jeopardy, let alone his season, it appears that Cannon will need to fill that role for the entire season.
Not what you're looking for.
There's no question whatsoever that Cannon has been one of the weak links - arguably THE weak link - on an already undermanned Patriots offensive line in recent years. Now, he needs to step up to the front line and protect Tom Brady's right side against what will be a litany of dangerously talented defensive ends. The Broncos' Von Miller already showed how badly he can abuse the Patriots in Denver, even with Vollmer.
The Patriots will quickly get a glimpse of what life on the edges will look like for the offense when they head to Raleigh to face the Carolina Panthers in the third preseason game of the season, the "dress rehearsal" game that is often the one that most closely resembles regular season action - while the starters are in there, anyway. Cannon will be one of those starters as the Patriots square off with the defending NFC Champions in Carolina.
About those Panthers ... they boast arguably the league's most dangerous front-seven and will be a handful for the Patriots in the trenches on Friday, especially if all of their starters are in the lineup. Cannon may specifically have to deal with veteran former All-Pro defensive end Charles Johnson in one-on-one matchups, but he may also be tasked with containing defensive tackle Kawann Short, who emerged as an elite interior pass rusher last season with 11 sacks. Oh, and there's Luke Kuechly, who may well be the best defensive player in football, let alone the best linebacker.
Friday's game will give a strong indication of where Cannon is at in his development and how he may handle his new starting duties. What exactly has been Cannon's problem thus far? CSNNE's Tom E. Curran posted an insightful column on Cannon Tuesday morning, touching upon what he terms a "confidence" issue with the sixth-year tackle out of TCU:
"...[Cannon] hates to fail because he knows the negative attention that will then follow. Criticism doesn't roll off Cannon's back. It puddles. It weighs on him. It impacts him. And, when things don't go well, moving on may be a bit harder because there could be a sense of, 'Here we go again and I'm gonna be the guy that gets singled out.'"
Curran added that he asked Cannon directly if confidence has been an issue for him, to which the tackle abruptly ended the interview after staring him down.
If you've heard any of the shows here on 98.5 The Sports Hub or watched Patriots coverage on TV, you already know that Cannon has pretty much been the whipping boy, the scapegoat, the whatever-you-want-to-call-the-guy-that-gets-ripped-the-most for all of the Patriots' offensive linemen in recent seasons. Tackle is one of those positions that only really catches your eye when one gives up a sack or misses a blocking assignment. Curran pointed out how no one mentioned Cannon when he played well in the AFC Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the media could not wait to rip him after he was straight-up "turnstiled" along with the entire Pats O-line in January's AFC Championship Game in Denver.
Cannon has been a big part of the line's struggles, and so he receives the brunt of the criticism on sports radio and TV, and even if he's "ignoring the noise" like the Patriots do so well, he's probably hearing what people are saying about him through family, friends, and other secondary sources. He sounded a bit unnerved speaking to the reporters that descended upon him in the wake of the news of Vollmer's likely trip to IR, but did a good job making himself available and was not afraid to speak about the big test he has in front of him with the Panthers.
"[The Panthers'] front-seven, they're great, they're probably the best in the NFL," Cannon said. "We've got to do our due diligence this week of studying them and understanding them and working hard to continue to do well. It's going to be a challenge."
He'd better be able to handle the inevitable scrutiny now more than ever because fair or unfair, it won't be going away.
The bright side is, Cannon now knows his role. Curran described him as a "vagabond" on the offensive line, having never been able to settle in comfortably to a particular spot. Maybe he won't turn out to be a good, or even serviceable, starting right tackle, but at least Cannon has a defined role now and his potential and ability will be clearer than ever.
When speaking to reporters on Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick expressed a similar level of optimism for Cannon to perform well as the right tackle now that he knows where he will be in the lineup.
"[Cannon] has played other positions, can play other positions, but I think [right tackle] is his best position," said Belichick. "All of those other moves are really part of another – wasn't the idea of like 'We need to move Marcus.' There were other circumstances and because of his athleticism, his intelligence, his versatility, a lot of times he was the guy making the move. But I think we've got him in a good spot now."
Hopefully, Belichick is right and, with a consistent, defined role, Cannon is ready to put it all together - and perhaps gain more confidence in himself He and the rest of the Patriots offensive line will need to be on top of their game against Carolina, a perfect litmus test for what will undoubtedly be the Patriots' biggest question mark.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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