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.
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.