Protecting Tom Brady’s blindside is entrusted to few men. Over nearly two decades, just two players have truly earned Bill Belichick’s trust to protect the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
From 2001-2011, Matt Light locked down the left tackle spot, starting 153 games while earning three Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl rings. Not a bad return for a player drafted 48th out of Purdue.
Since Light’s retirement, the left tackle job has belonged to another homegrown talent: Nate Solder. The 6-foot-8, 314-pounder made an immediate impact after the New England Patriots drafted him 17th in 2011, starting 13 games as a rookie for a team that nearly won the Super Bowl.
Though he never quite developed into an elite player, Solder’s consistency has been his hallmark. The former Colorado standout has started 95 games in seven seasons, battling top-tier pass-rushers and opening holes for New England’s stable of running backs.
Even when injuries and his son’s medical condition stood in the way, Solder battled through and has remained a key member of the offense.
However, Brady’s blindside protector could be blocking for a new quarterback in 2018.
After playing out the final year of his two-year contract extension, Solder is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Because his contract precluded the Patriots from utilizing the franchise tag, the soon-to-be 30-year-old will hit free agency as the top available tackle on the market.
Though he would never be considered a top-five player at his position, Solder’s value on the open market will be sky-high. There are no other comparable left tackles available, and this year’s draft is considered to be one of the weakest for offensive tackles in recent years.
Expected to draw offers north of $12 million, Solder’s chances of remaining in New England appear slimmer by the day. The Patriots typically do not get into a bidding war with their own free agents, and it would be a financial strain to dedicate such a large portion of their remaining cap space to a single player with so many other needs to address.
If Solder has indeed played his final game in a Patriot uniform, how can the team replace the long-time left tackle?
Perhaps the answer is already on the roster: second-year pro Antonio Garcia. The 85th selection in the 2017 NFL Draft was regarded as one of the better tackle prospects in the class. At 6-foot-6, 302 pounds, the Troy product displayed good athleticism and a nasty edge that made him a possible steal in the third round. Considering New England’s propensity for grooming a successor a year early, it appeared that Garcia could seamlessly step in for Solder for this very situation.
Unfortunately, Garcia missed his entire rookie season with blood clots in his lungs that caused him to lose more than 40 pounds. For a player who already had problems maintaining his weight in college, the loss of weight and strength cannot be taken lightly.
Though Garcia is expected to make a full recovery, there is no timetable on when he will be back in action. If he can regain strength and get his weight north of 300 pounds, he could certainly challenge for the starting job. But given the uncertainty surrounding his health situation, that seems like a risky proposition.
Complicating matters further is the fact that New England’s two backup tackles are also unrestricted free agents. LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming were forced into the lineup last season due to Marcus Cannon’s season-ending ankle injury, and both players performed admirably.
While Garcia profiles as the best long-term replacement, the team may ultimately have to pay up to keep either Waddle or Fleming (or both) in order to maintain continuity on offense. Both free-agent tackles will draw interest from other teams, but neither projects as a high-priced signing.
One option could be moving Cannon to left tackle and installing Waddle or Fleming as the starter on the right side. Cannon did play on the blind side at TCU, and he has made a few appearances there for the Patriots. It might not be the ideal scenario, but it is a feasible one from a financial and practical standpoint.
Unfortunately, the rest of the free-agent class is underwhelming and there does not appear to be a left tackle on the market capable of stepping in for Solder.
Drafting a replacement would be a calculated risk considering the importance of protecting the 40-year-old Brady. Can the Patriots risk playing a rookie at the most important spot on the offense line?
Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has done a terrific job developing draft picks and undrafted free agents. New England’s interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason have all been home-grown under Scarnecchia’s tutelage. Solder and Cannon are also homegrown products of Scarnecchia’s legendary coaching.
If the Patriots do look to the draft, one prospect to keep an eye on is UCLA’s Kolton Miller. He put up outstanding numbers at the combine, and he compares favorably to Solder from a physical standpoint. However, the 6-foot-9, 310-pounder is considered more of a developmental prospect than a plug-and-play starter.
If the Patriots are truly intent on maximizing the final few years of Brady’s career, retaining Solder should be a top priority. But if that’s not possible, re-signing Waddle and/or Fleming and flipping Cannon to the left side may be the most feasible and effective strategy. If Garcia is back to full strength, perhaps he can compete for the starting job and ease the loss of Solder in free agency.