The Patriots have a rare problem this offseason. One that may very well be solved by the end of next season, or simply not matter. But it’s there, and it’s at one of their most traditionally stable positions.
Left tackle Nate Solder is now a member of the New York Giants, agreeing to a can-you-blame-him four-year deal for up to $62 million with $35 million guaranteed. There’s now a Solder-sized hole at a position that has consistently protected Tom Brady’s blind side at a better-than-average level for 17 seasons.
When it came time for Matt Light to call it quits, Solder stepped in seamlessly for the next six years. Now, Solder is with another team and the Pats have no clear avenue for a replacement.
Tony Garcia could’ve been pegged to be that guy when the Patriots drafted him in the third round nearly a year ago. But unfortunately, the Troy product missed his entire rookie season due to blood clots in his lungs. In his sophomore season, the 24-year-old Garcia faces questions of how much he’ll contribute at all in 2018 – let alone whether he’d be ready to start at left tackle.
Still, it’s worth reminding that Thursday is still just the second day of the league year. The Patriots could still retain one of the free-agent tackles they had on the roster in 2017. That being said, re-signing Cameron Fleming or LaAdrian Waddle would excite very few people.
But … Waddle did play well at right tackle down the stretch in 2017 when he had to step in for Marcus Cannon. If the plan turns out to be a move to left tackle for Cannon and Waddle on the right, then maybe there’s less of a question mark there. It’s less than ideal, but it’s something you can potentially envision.
Other than the above names, the only other tackles under contract for 2018 are Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks, and Jason King. Croston, 24, did play eight offensive snaps in 2017 – but none were at left tackle. The Pats obviously see something in Croston to keep him on the 53-man roster all year, but it would be a gamble to think he’d be ready to make the jump to left tackle.
Jelks, meanwhile, signed with the Patriots as a rookie free agent last May. He stood out early in his college career at Vanderbilt, making the SEC All-Freshman team. But he ended up missing both his junior and senior years in 2015-16 due to two consecutive preseason ACL injuries. So there are legitimate concerns about Jelks’ skills at this stage, but there’s clearly some upside there. Just not enough, most likely, to make him a realistic contributor for the Patriots’ offensive line as soon as 2018.
As for King, he signed with the Patriots’ practice squad in December. The 24-year-old undrafted free agent was on and off the Patriots and Ravens rosters in the 2017 season. He most likely won’t be a factor on the O-line next season.
So obviously, the Patriots have an uncommonly uneasy situation at left tackle. There’s never been a void at the position in Tom Brady’s career like there is now. It will be one of the most talked-about spots on the roster heading into the 2018 season – aggressively talked about compared to other years, to be certain.
But any reasonable observer should agree that as long as Brady is on the field, left tackle shouldn’t ultimately make the difference between winning and losing the Super Bowl. Protecting Brady’s blind side is no doubt important, but it’s arguably not as important as protecting him up the middle and they’re set in that area. And even so, there’s still reason to be confident that they will have left tackle figured out by the time the season really ramps up in the winter. By the time the games truly count.
Would it really shock anyone if the Patriots started off slowly as they experimented with the O-line? If Brady gets hit a concerning amount of times early on? If the line looked like a trainwreck … only to get on track and play well enough to keep Brady upright all the way to the Super Bowl?
If any coaches can find a way to at least mitigate the loss of Solder, it’s Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia. They have an entire training camp and season to find a group that works. And the league year has still just started; the Pats have plenty of time to add a tackle via free agency or the draft. It’s far too early to suggest that the Patriots offensive line is in shambles. In fact, that may never be an accurate statement.
In light of Solder’s departure and the lack of reliable options behind him, the Pats did make it hard on themselves to find a new left tackle. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be impossible to figure out. Just that it’s a pressing need and a roster spot to watch over the next several months.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.