Nate Solder

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering the draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding said talent. We'll start things off with what is currently the team's greatest area of need: Offensive tackle.

HOW THEY PERFORMED
Considering the Patriots lost one of the best right tackles in football to injury, the performance at this spot has to be considered a rousing success. Back in August, when backup tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming were having a hell of a time in West Virginia trying to slow down the array of Texans pass-rushers thrown their way, it looked like this group might cripple the Patriots if anything were to happen to Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon. Instead, it ended up being one of the team's deepest positional groups. Solder led the group. After an up-and-down first half, he was stout following the team's bye week. In 11 games after the break, including playoffs - after getting more aggressive with his punch, according to o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia - he allowed just one sack and five quarterback hits. Cannon played in seven of the team's first eight games and was sidelined for the season when he aggravated an ankle injury he'd been dealing with for much of the season. Waddle performed admirably in Cannon's absence, taking on talented pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, Von Miller of the Broncos and Khalil Mack of the Raiders and not allowing a sack in that stretch. When Waddle got hurt, Fleming stepped in and was more than serviceable. He started seven games, including two of three playoff games, and allowed three total sacks. Despite going against two of the game's best fronts in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, neither Jacksonville nor Philadelphia could take advantage of New England's third right tackle. The Patriots needed depth at that spot for the second time in three years - 2015 was a mess at tackle due to injuries, and the Patriots were forced to use center Bryan Stork there briefly - and they had plenty this time around. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018
Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks.

WHO ISN'T
Nate Solder, Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED
It's about as dire as it gets -- a 10 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay memorial "How concerned are you?!?" scale. If the Patriots aren't able to bring back one or more of their impending free agents this offseason, one of their deepest positions will suddenly become one of their greatest liabilities. Solder hadn't yet made any decisions about his future by the end of the season, meaning there's no guarantee he'll return. It's written into his contract that he can't be given the franchise tag so the Patriots will have to figure out a new deal with the soon-to-be 30-year-old if they want him. Fleming and Waddle could try to turn their fill-in performances this season into new contracts elsewhere in what will be a relatively weak free-agent tackle market. Cannon should be back to full health for the start of the 2018 season and he'll be a lock to start the season at right tackle, but it's the left side that could be an issue. The Patriots have three young tackles in-house in Garcia, Jelks and Croston, but it's unclear exactly how ready any of them will be to take on the massive responsibilities that come with protecting Tom Brady's blind side. Garcia missed his entire rookie season due to illness and lost a significant amount of weight - and he came into the league already relatively light. Jelks, an undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, stayed on the non-football injury list this year and hasn't played since 2014 due to season-ending knee injuries in 2015 and 2016. Croston is a promising player headed into his second year - the Patriots protected him on the roster all season even though they knew he was buried on the depth chart -- but he's unproven. There are myriad question marks here. If the Patriots can't bring back Solder on a new deal, finding a left tackle capable of handling the job would probably shoot to the top of their offseason to-do list. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?
Not much. The most established tackles hitting free agency, outside of Solder, rank as some of the worst in football, per Pro Football Focus. Greg Robinson (graded as PFF's No. 66 tackle), Chris Clark (No. 77) and Donald Stephenson (No. 51) aren't necessarily names that scream "plug and play!" There are other swing tackles and career backups available, but if the Patriots are forced to look for Solder's replacement, it probably won't be on the free-agent market. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
The options seem to be better here, although rolling with a rookie tackle at the premier position of left tackle would be a sizable risk. Three tackles are commonly referred to by draft experts as first-round options: Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Texas' Connor Williams and Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey. Ohio State's Jamarco Jones, Oregon's Tyrell Crosby and Western Michigan's Okorafor Chukwuma have potential and could probably be had in later rounds, but they'll probably need more polish.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
The best way for the Patriots to address the situation would be by re-signing Solder. He could argue he's worth around $13 million per year (about what Russell Okung received when he signed a four-year deal at 29), and perhaps the Patriots would be willing to go there on a shorter-term deal depending on Solder's career plans. Otherwise, the Patriots could re-sign Waddle and/or Fleming and try Cannon on the left side. In that scenario, the Patriots may be hurting two positions while trying to fix one, but it still may be their next best option. If they're having a hard time coming up with answers, maybe the Patriots could try left guard Joe Thuney at tackle -- he played there in college -- but his length and his track record the past two years would suggest he should stay on the inside. Finally, if Garcia or Croston is ready to take on a bigger role, the Patriots could try either at tackle. Garcia is a very good athlete, but he'll need to get much stronger - especially after his illness - to play on the left side. Because the best tackle prospects in the draft will likely be off the board before the Patriots pick at the end of the first round, getting Solder back seems to be the most logical way to go about making sure the left side of New England's offensive line is secured for 2018. 

What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

What they're saying: Patriots explain how they deal with the 'hype and ridiculous [expletive]'

MINNEAPOLIS -- Through three episodes of the Facebook project "Tom vs. Time" that tracks Tom Brady's work and life off the field, one of the more fascinating scenes involves Brady picking through thick binders filled with notes and plans from individual seasons. Inside the 2016 binder, he pulled a sheet of paper from the point last season when the Patriots were preparing to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

QUICK SLANTS THE PODCAST: Rodney Harrison, Dan Patrick, and Cris Collinsworth break down match-ups to look for on Sunday

"This is a lot of stuff that [Bill] Belichick talks about in team meetings that I write down," Brady told the camera. "These are kind of his themes. I'll read you some of them: 'Prepare and play well. The Super Bowl environment is all about hype and ridiculous bull**** that goes on.' "

He would know. He's been through enough of these.

The media crush is obviously different during Super Bowl week. Players are aware of it. The vast majority know how to handle it. Still, Patriots were asked on Tuesday how they deal with the chaotic media availability sessions and all the attention.

MORE OF WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: Eagles weigh in: Belichick-or-Brady?

"You just kind of tune it out," James White said. "You come in here to win a football game. There's all this hype around this game. Biggest game of the year and whatnot. But we can't overhype it. It's still football at the end of the day. You want to go out and put your best foot forward, have fun, and just do what you've been doing all year long."

Many Patriots continue to live by the credo "ignore the noise," and Nate Solder, who is headed to his fourth Super Bowl, counts himself among those.

"That was established by the coaches and things, but that's helped me certainly because all this other stuff, it's just white noise," Solder said. "It's just gonna take away from the true reason that we're here, and that's to win a game."

MORE PATRIOTS: Disobeying the sitter to watch Brady

"We deal with media all week during the regular week," added David Andrews. "It's not like something we deal with once a year at this time of year. But everything now is on a bigger scale. The game is obviously on a bigger scale. There's more production, things like that. We just kind of handle that. Move forward. It's gonna be good to get back here, rolling, and preparing for Philly."

The Patriots will have their first practice of the week on Wednesday. They'll do their best to fall into their routine, as they have for the first few days of their stay here, despite living in a hotel attached to a gargantuan mall.

"You can still stick to your routine," White said. "I think our staff does a great job of trying to get everything we have at our facility at the hotel so you can do the same exact things you've done before."

Here are some of the other things the Patriots were saying on Tuesday . . .

Brady on "centering himself" and meditation: "It can be challenging. Obviously my mind races a lot. There are a lot of things that I'm thinking about. For me, I've learned the car ride home is a great
time, 30 minutes of time, where I can listen to music and find a good space for me to be in for the day. Whether that's driving into work in the morning, or I can think about things I need to do, I want to do. And leaving practice, after you've expended a lot of energy, to find a good balance to deal with things at home."

Brady on the potential of getting hit by former teammate Chris Long: "I hope he doesn't hit me too hard if he gets a shot. Hopefully he respects his elders a little bit out there . . . I really enjoyed my
time with Chris. He's a helluva player and he made huge plays for us last year. He's made some great plays for the Eagles this year. They have a dominant pass rush on both edges, right up the middle, and he's a big part of that. He's a great leader, practices his butt off, great enthusiasm. I have a ton of respect for him."

Kyle Van Noy on how comforting it is to know Patriots safeties are backing him up: "It's nice. [Patrick] Chung is a Swiss Army knife. [Duron Harmon] is the sniper in the back. And [Devin McCourty] is the clean-up. I would hope no one takes them for granted because all three are phenomenal players. They deserve a lot of credit for the success of the Patriots defense of late, and they deserve a lot of credit."

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Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

Asserting their will: Patriots offensive line makes a statement vs. Falcons

FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.

Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.

"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."

Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him. 

Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes. 

The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field. 

The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down. 

Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times. 

Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction. 

"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."

What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger. 

There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said. 

But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.

"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."

The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.

It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing. 

"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. 

"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."

Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter. 

Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging. 

"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."