Patriots position-by-position breakdown: Offensive tackle
By Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry
This is the sixth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots by Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry as we head into the offseason. Today's position: Offensive tackle
Nate Solder, 27, (signed through 2017)
Sebastian Vollmer, 31, (2016)
Marcus Cannon, 27, (2016)
LaAdrian Waddle, 24, (2015)
Cameron Fleming, 23, (2015)
Keavon Milton, 25, (2016)
If you got a load of the AFC Championship Game – and I’m sure you did – you’re aware that this spot needs addressing. And it goes beyond a return to health for left tackle Nate Solder, who tore his biceps in Week 5 against Dallas. The Patriots don’t have very competent depth, it appears, at tackle. I’m not holding Sebastian Vollmer’s out-of-position-on-a-bad-ankle performance versus DeMarcus Ware against him. But his age, injury history and contract status (up after 2016) means the Patriots do need a top-tier guy in the system to replace him. Marcus Cannon is not that player. He can have very good games – as he did in the AFC Divisional Playoffs against Kansas City – but he also seizes up in big spots too often with unforced presnap errors, communication breakdowns or fundamental physical mistakes. He is worth keeping around through the end of his contract but not beyond unless he has a terrific 2016. Meanwhile, I don’t see the urgency to re-sign Cameron Fleming if the Patriots can find someone more promising whether it be in the draft or free agency. If Vollmer and Solder stay healthy in 2016, everything is fine and rosy. But they likely won’t. And that’s why this is a priority spot.
There are four reasons the Patriots will be focused on this position either in free agency or the draft, and they're all fairly straight forward.
1) Though up against an elite defensive front in Denver, the team's struggles at this spot in the AFC Championship Game were among the primary factors that its season ended when it did. Of all the injuries New England endured in 2015, Nate Solder's may have ended up as the most significant as both Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon had their difficulties at Mile High.
2) Depth at this spot seems to be a concern. If Solder or Vollmer go down, Cannon is the next man up, and he's drawn praise from both Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia in the past. He's a player who has played well at times -- when he subbed in for the injured Sebastian Vollmer in 2013, he was solid at right tackle -- but has had trouble finding consistency and playing penalty-free. The Patriots could potentially bring back LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming to bolster their numbers, but it seems as though another layer of insurance would be beneficial here.
3) Should the team opt to part ways with Cannon, who signed a two-year extension with the Patriots in 2014, it would save about $3 million. From a team perspective, the downside to that kind of move is that it would leave them thin in terms of experience on the edge beyond their top two guys.
4) The Patriots have showed in the recent past that this is a position, like every other, where they like to be prepared for the future. In 2011, they drafted Nate Solder in the first round despite having two starting tackles ready to go in Vollmer and veteran Matt Light. The understanding was that Solder was probably the future on the left side. Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio could opt to do something similar this year on the right, improving their depth at that position while also preparing for beyond 2016. As it stands right now, next season is a contract season for both Vollmer and Cannon.