Our guy Tom E. Curran put it ever so eloquently during a Periscope Q&A on Tuesday night: While Patriots fans might have their hands hovering over a panic button following the departures of Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis, they were free to smash it if Nate Solder signed elsewhere.
That sound you heard Wednesday morning? Buttons. Smashed.
Solder agreed to a four-year deal with the Giants that will make him the highest-paid tackle in the league. It’s a resounding endorsement for those who argue left tackle is the second most important position in the sport since Solder acknowledged to me last season that he didn’t necessarily consider himself to be in the top tier of tackles around the league. And he studies them. He regarded Jason Peters, Tyron Smith and Trent Williams as a cut above the rest. But now he’ll be paid more than any of them.
I spoke to a handful of Patriots linemen, including Solder, as well as Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia last season about accumulating tackle depth. While most acknowledged it’s not impossible to find good young tackles these days, none said it was easy. Because it’s not. Finding a player with the requisite size, athleticism, toughness and intelligence to man one of the tackle positions — particularly the left side — has been one of the great difficulties teams across the league have run into in recent seasons, and the Patriots may soon consider themselves to be among that group.
It’s the first time in a long time for them. Matt Light started at left tackle from 2001 until he retired following the 2011 season. Solder started on the left side in 2012 and has been there ever since when healthy.
So what’s next for the protection of Tom Brady’s blindside? It's anyone’s guess.
The Patriots tried to prepare for this. They drafted two tackles last spring: Tony Garcia in the third round and Conor McDermott in the sixth. McDermott was cut out of camp and Garcia missed the entire season on the non-football injury list. The team also signed and kept undrafted rookie Cole Croston, a guard/tackle prospect from Iowa, on the active roster all season. They like him. And fellow undrafted rookie tackle Andrew Jelks was with the team all year though, like Garcia, he was unavailable all season on NFI.
Only the Patriots know if any of those players will be ready to play a key role at either tackle spot in 2018. We simply haven’t seen enough from any of them. And even Scarnecchia acknowledged the team will have to be patient with Garcia as he returns from a health scare that forced him to lose a significant amount of weight last season.
Other familiar options? The Patriots could re-sign LaAdrian Waddle or Cam Fleming, who split right tackle work in Marcus Cannon’s absence last year. Waddle had a tremendous three-game stretch against Denver’s Von Miller, Oakland’s Khalil Mack and Miami’s Cam Ware last season, not allowing a single sack to those left-end rushers. Fleming performed well against talented fronts from Jacksonville and Philly late in the season.
Others set to hit the free agent market include Greg Robinson, a former first-rounder waived with an injury designation by the Lions last season and Justin Pugh, who played right tackle for the Giants but could be moved to left.
There’s always the trade market. Or the Patriots could turn to the draft, but it’s not a deep tackle class this year, according to experts. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage told us on Quick slants the Podcast recently that he had one tackle graded as a first-round talent this season: Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchy.
The Patriots must have contingency plans at tackle now that Solder is headed two hundred miles south. It’s just hard to know exactly what they are at the moment.