The Patriots have painted themselves into a corner at left tackle. Next week, Nate Solder -- who turns 30 in April -- will become a free agent.
Since being taken with the 17th overall pick in the 2011 draft, Solder's established himself as one of the league's better players at one of its most difficult positions. He's missed significant time just once. That was in 2015, when he tore his biceps against the Cowboys. The offensive line was never really the same after that and the AFC Championship Game against Denver was its nadir as Tom Brady took a merciless beating in a narrow loss.
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The start to Solder's 2017 wasn't up to his standards. At all. But by midseason, he spun his year around.
Speaking to Phil Perry at the Super Bowl, this is what offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said about Solder, "I think the switch just flipped, and I think it flipped for the better. I think we've seen a really good football player. I don't think he's really outspoken or really verbal, but when he says something everybody listens to it. The guy is a really bright guy and he's a really good player. He's a great guy . . . He's a dynamic run-blocker and a really good pass-blocker. I really like him. I like being around him."
Truthfully, Solder needed to do that. Because no matter how good he's been and no matter how direct and impactful he is as a leader in the Patriots locker room, what matters going forward is his performance. Whichever team signs Solder has to ask itself how good he will be at 32 or 33, playing left tackle against players who just keep getting faster, stronger and more impossible to block for 70 plays every Sunday.
He is at the top of the free-agent tackle class. Somebody is going to pay him. And it's a tribute to how shallow the pool is that teammates Cameron Fleming and La'Adrian Waddle are also in the mix as the best free-agent tackle prospects.
So the Patriots have three expiring contracts at left tackle. Last offseason, they traded a first-round pick to acquire Brandin Cooks and took a flamethrower to their second-round pick by trading it for Kony Ealy, who never played a down.
In the third round, they drafted Antonio Garcia from Troy University. Garcia had trouble keeping weight on in college -- he was consistently below 300 pounds as a senior -- then missed his rookie season with an illness that caused him to drop even more weight.
The Patriots -- primarily Scarnecchia, the lineman whisperer -- have had success through the years shepherding players from nowhere to capable. Marcus Cannon should present Scarnecchia in Canton if the voters were shrewd enough to realize he's been a Hall of Fame assistant.
Maybe that happens with Garcia. But it's a big “maybe.” And until Garcia or someone else develops, the Patriots will ask their 41-year-old quarterback to -- still, again, forever -- bail them out by taking the thrashing he'll surely get and keep on getting back up.
As much credit as Scarnecchia deserves for what he's done as a coach, Brady's ability to get the ball out quickly has covered for offensive-line development periods. So has the scheme and the skill position personnel, but it really comes back to Brady.
My sense from talking to Solder during the season is that he'd prefer to stay in New England. But he is also amenable to listening to other teams. My feeling is he will take into account all the information and make his decision. He doesn't know what's going to happen either.
Anthony Castonzo, left tackle for the Colts, was taken five spots after Solder in 2011. He's made $43 million and is on the books to make $59 million through 2019.
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This isn't to suggest the Patriots should do their business like the moronic Colts. Only that, when it comes to making his decision, these will be the things that inform Solder's decision.
Since 2001, the Patriots have had two main left tackles -- Matt Light and Solder. And Solder got to serve an apprentice season because the Patriots planned well at the position. It hasn't shaken out that way this time. And it should be a point of concern.