FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Many New England Patriots players will return to town in mid-April for the start of the team’s voluntary offseason program, but 2018 first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn already has been a daily visitor at Gillette Stadium.
That’s a reflection of the hard work Wynn is putting in as he attempts to return from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in August that ended his rookie season before it began. It also highlights an important void the Patriots need to fill for the second year in a row, as Wynn is the leading candidate to protect Tom Brady‘s blind side after Trent Brown signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Oakland Raiders.
The No. 23 overall pick of last year’s draft from Georgia, Wynn was a regular participant in position meetings last season and made an impression as a “bright” player from a mental standpoint, according to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
As for Wynn’s physical recovery from the torn Achilles, all indications from those close to him is that there has been steady progress. Wynn’s positive mindset has shown up regularly on social media.
Morning Twitter fam ☀️. Hopefully you’re morning is off to a great start! If not, keep in mind that you were fortunate enough to see another 24. Take advantage of today and grind it out! #WynnWithWynnWednesday
— Isaiah Wynn (@iwynn77) March 20, 2019
Though the team will proceed cautiously with Wynn, and every injury situation is different, some parallels can be drawn to what future Patriots Hall of Famer Vince Wilfork went through in 2013 and 2014.
The space-eating, athletic defensive tackle tore an Achilles in the fourth game of the ’13 season, and he worked hard to be ready for 2014 training camp in late July. He met his goal, then went on to start 47 of the final 48 games of his career.
“Achilles is a weird injury. Some people I talked to went through a lot of pain, others had minor pain, but I never had pain even when I did rupture it. I didn’t feel it. The rehab, surgery, coming back, I didn’t have any pain or discomfort. The only thing that was different was that you had to learn to walk all over again. Like a newborn,” Wilfork relayed.
“Stuff you really never paid attention to, you’re wondering, ‘Am I stepping right? Am I doing this right?’ You’re very aware on every little step you take, just to make sure everything is working the way it’s supposed to work.”
Wilfork stressed how important patience was for a player coming back from an Achilles injury, especially early in the recovery when forced to wear a boot and mostly be immobile.
“The biggest thing that helped me, and the biggest thing I could tell anyone with an Achilles, was taking the recommended time and maybe even a little more, depending on how the body responds. The last thing you want is to start doing some things and boom! You snap it again and you’re back behind the curve. That was one of the best things I did — I listened and was staying off it,” Wilfork said.
“Getting scar tissue broken down was also important. I think probably 75-80 percent of my comeback was because of my masseuse. She was probably the biggest difference-maker in coming back the way I did. It wasn’t any rehab. It wasn’t any training. It was my masseuse, 2-3 hours, and just breaking down the scar tissue and getting new blood flow in that area. I did that 3-4 times a week.
“The more you can get in and start now [is good]. It’s going to need some scar tissue for it to grow back, but you don’t need too much where it restricts range of motion. The quicker my masseuse started breaking that down, the healing process became that much faster.”
If Wynn has a similar experience, it would answer one of the team’s biggest questions.
Losing Brown and LaAdrian Waddle (Buffalo Bills) in free agency was a double-barreled hit to the depth chart, leaving Wynn and practice-squad player Cole Croston as the top two left-tackle options. Meanwhile, veteran Marcus Cannon returns as the starting right tackle, with unproven Dan Skipper (one NFL game played) and Ryker Mathews (no NFL experience) behind him.
That wouldn’t be ideal if the season started today, but if the Patriots truly had concerns about Wynn’s recovery, or overall depth, they likely would have been more aggressive in retaining Waddle, who was a valuable backup each of the past three seasons.
Waddle’s free-agent deal with the Bills is a one-year, $2 million pact that includes a $400,000 signing bonus. That seems like a reasonable insurance policy for a premium position, but the Patriots — led by the widely respected Scarnecchia — obviously have confidence in their ability to fill that void with a different (and likely more cost-effective) option.
So, armed with 12 draft picks, which ties an NFL high, the Patriots figure to look closely at the incoming class of offensive tackles to build their depth. Evaluators view offensive line as a deep spot this year.
But more than anything, the Patriots are counting on their top pick from 2018 to return to form.
Wilfork is one notable example of how that is a realistic possibility, even as he acknowledged it took him a little extra time to rediscover his old form upon his return from an Achilles injury.
“Some people say it will take you up to a year to feel like your normal self. Honestly, it took me probably a year and a half,” he said. “But once I got to that point … I felt like I could have played another five, six, seven more [seasons] if I wanted to, but I got to the point where I felt it was time for me to do something different. I left the game healthy and nothing was bothering me.”