About midway through last season, I sidled up to Nate Solder to ask him what he thought about the state of offensive line play in the NFL -- especially at tackle.
The Seahawks, Cardinals and Texans were getting battered for their shaky protection units and theories were flooding the internet as to how the outlook up front had become so ugly on some rosters.
Limited padded practices made it more difficult to teach young linemen to block, some argued. Others pointed to the rise of spread offenses in the college game as the primary issue.
Solder shook his head.
"I don't buy it," he said. "That might be true [to say tackle play has declined]. I wasn't in the league 10 years ago, so I don't know. But I think there are talented dudes coming in. The left tackle for the Ravens [Ronnie Stanley], the left tackle for the Titans [Taylor Lewan]. These are young dudes who play really well. These guys play really well their first year in the league.
"I don't buy that totally. I think it's rare to have a person who can move and have that size. But I don't know if the way the game is going that it's hurting tackles. That's my take. Because I've watched tackles come in and play really well."
The supply of good tackles, though, particularly on the left side, seems to be outweighed by the demand. It's the reason the Patriots could lose Solder, 29, to free agency as early as next week.
Solder isn't in the upper-tier of tackles in the NFL even by his own admission. (Jason Peters, Trent Williams and Tyron Smith are in a class of their own, Solder said. "I don't watch [Smith] because I can't get anything from it. He's really throwing guys down, and I'm like 'All right, that's not helping me.' ") Yet, Solder could receive a contract with an average annual value that would rival the top players at the position because there are few good options for teams in need.
This year's free-agent class of tackles is light. Solder is the clear-cut No. 1, and his Patriots teammates LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming -- both of whom as scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next week -- are among the next-best choices.
In the draft, there may be just one NFL-ready left tackle. Only two tackles were taken in the first round last year and executive director of the Senior Bowl and longtime NFL personnel man Phil Savage told us on Quick Slants the Podcast that it's becoming tougher to pluck tackles from the college ranks.
"It's definitely become a challenge," Savage said. "We've always focused and talked about how the spread offenses in college have affected the quarterbacks, but in reality, it's impacted all of the positions, quite frankly.
"You look at the offensive line nowadays and most schools are building what I call a five-man unit where there's no real distinction between the left tackle versus the right tackle versus the right guard versus the left guard. They're all kind of the same because they play as a unit. There's not as much of a premium placed on that left tackle as a standalone pass-protector...
"This year, amazingly enough, I really only had one tackle [with a first-round grade following the combine, and that's [Notre Dame's] Mike McGlinchey. There's a couple of interior linemen like Will Hernandez from UTEP and Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame that are likely to go in the first round. But as far as just a tackle. Wow. It's staggering to think that there could only be really one tackle to go in the first round this year."
Despite the positional scarcity, somehow the Patriots were able to load up at tackle in 2017. Not only did they begin the year with two capable starters in Solder and Marcus Cannon, but Waddle, Fleming and Cole Croston (who can play guard and tackle) all made the 53-man roster out of training camp. Two more tackles, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks, spent the year in Dante Scarnecchia's meeting room but on reserve lists and unavailable.
Keeping both Fleming and Waddle, in particular, caught some who make their livings outside the walls of Gillette Stadium by surprise.
"You really can't look and say, 'Oh we're tackle rich. Let's get rid of one.' Look what happened," Scarnecchia said just days before the Super Bowl. "We've had four tackles that've played this year. When you have good players, you have players that are good enough to play, you keep those guys around. You don't just get rid of them because you think you've got enough. You say, 'OK, this is what the deal's gonna be.' And we decided we wanted to keep four tackles, and I think that's helped us a lot . . .
"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players. They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year."
When Cannon hit injured reserve halfway through the season, Waddle (four starts) and Fleming (seven) performed well in his absence. In one three-week stretch, Waddle started at right tackle against Denver's Von Miller, Oakland's Khalil Mack and Miami's Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush off of the offensive right side primarily -- and didn't allow a sack. Fleming gave up two quarterback hits and one sack combined as a starter against talented pass-rushers in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl.
I asked Bill Belichick in November about the team's roster construction, specifically as it related to their setup at tackle. They were hoarding players at a position where there don't seem to be enough players to hoard. And they used most of them.
"I think that’s a position that I feel like is an important position to have depth there," Belichick said. "You want to have depth at every position but those guys are hard to find. If you’re tackle-poor I think that can show up a lot quicker than being poor at other positions. Tackle – you can help them a little bit but they’re single blocking most of the game. I’d say it’s hard to help that position. Not impossible, but it’s hard."
So. how did the Patriots get to a place where they were able to lose one of their best players -- Cannon was a second-team All-Pro in 2016 -- yet still continue to protect Tom Brady well enough to make the Super Bowl?
First, look at the coaching. Scarnecchia's ability to shape and mold athletic, smart players into capable blockers has earned him a reputation as one of the best assistants in the league, and maybe even a Hall of Fame-level assistant, as Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran pointed out this week.
"He demands a lot of us each and every day," Waddle said this past season. "It's not one of those things where you could have a bad day or you could take a day off or go easy one day. We don't work like that, man. We're always getting it. We're always working. He challenges us. He expects our best every day."
Second, look at where these tackles are coming from. Solder played in a pro-style system at Colorado. Fleming came out of Stanford and Croston came from Iowa. Even Jelks, who played at Vanderbilt, fits into the same category. All of those programs run pro-style schemes.
Having that type of experience is not imperative. Waddle came from Texas Tech, which ran a spread offense that hardly ran the football. Shaq Mason, arguably the team's best lineman in 2017, came from Georgia Tech's option offense that hardly passed.
But having a pro-style background can ease the transition to the pro game.
"We ran the pulls and the gap schemes and everything at Iowa," said Croston, who played under former Belichick assistants Kirk and Brian Ferentz in college. "I lucked out coming out of a system where it matched up pretty similarly."
Because the athletes are as big, strong and fast as they've ever been, if there are tackles who have some relevant college experience, and if they can take coaching . . . then you can run into what the Patriots ran into: Depth at a spot where everyone is clamoring for it.
That's why, in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Scarnecchia scoffed at the idea that offensive line play was tanking. Like Solder, Scarnecchia has seen too many good young players succeed to buy into that line of thinking.
"Maybe 15 years ago, everyone was so put off and worried. 'Well everybody's running the wishbone and split-back veer, and none of those guys can pass-block.' Well, they could," Scarnecchia said. "Those that could, did. Those that couldn't, didn't.
"That's no different than guys coming out of college right now. Some guys can't pass-block right now. They just don't have the skill to do it. But you can take a guy like Mason who's got good skills and you can teach him how to pass-block. And you can teach guys out of systems like Texas Tech, where they throw the ball a lot, and you can teach them how to run-block if they're tough guys and willing to do those things.
"No, do I think the skill set of the offensive line has diminished? No. There's a lot of really good offensive linemen in this league right now that would transcend any era before them. They're just good players. I don't really think that's the case."
The fact remains, however, it's rare to do what the Patriots did at tackle last season. Two seasons prior, in 2015, when Solder hit IR after tearing his biceps, the Patriots struggled to field able players to man the outside. Bryan Stork, a center, started one game at right tackle. Sebastian Vollmer, a right tackle, kicked over to the left side for most of the season. They lacked depth, they were banged up, and they were overrun in the AFC Championship by the Broncos.
There are simply too many good pass-rushers around the league to try to get by with substandard talent at tackle in the modern NFL. At some point, you'll get exposed.
"You're kind of on an island," Waddle explained. "We're going against some freaks. Inside guys get freaks too, but being out there, there's a little more space. It's kind of hard to explain. You're kind of out there on your own, doing your own deal. Just dealing with those guys out there, it's tough. Those are freakish people on the planet."
When Solder dismissed the idea that tackle play was on the decline during our conversation, I asked him why it was perceived to be headed that way. Scoring was down about a point from the 2016 season to that point in the 2017 campaign, and so there might've been something to it, I said.
The discussion shifted to the economics of the league.
"Where's the money going? Is the money going to the defense? I think that's what you should track," Solder said. "Not if tackle play has gotten worse. What are teams emphasizing? Know what I mean? Are the tackles just as good, but teams are stacking up on defense? If you have four good pass-rushers, that's going to look a lot different than if you have one good pass rusher. It depends on where you put your money on your team. I think where the money is going, the trends are going to who's winning . . . They're watching groups that are winning."
How the Eagles were built last season, then, could be a sign of what's to come. They had a defensive line that went eight deep and came up with the game-winning play in the Super Bowl in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. If it truly is a copycat league, that means offensive tackles won't just be dealing with freaks on the edge moving forward. They could be dealing with waves of them, making tackles as valuable as ever.
The franchise tag number for offensive linemen sits at just over $14 million this year, and someone like Solder, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod last season, could be offered a deal next week that pays him something in that range for multiple years. Additionally, Waddle and Fleming should receive significant raises based on what they showed last season.
The Patriots know as well as anyone how valuable it is to have quality depth at tackle -- just look at the difference between what happened in 2015 and 2017. Soon they'll see how much it will cost to maintain it.
"I mean, that’s always a hard position," Belichick said in November. "Just take a look at the salary cap and look at the salaries. [They are] the guys that get paid the most money by position. I mean, that’s really all you need to know."