By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Among the many decisions Bill Belichick and his staff need to make this offseason, the path they choose at left tackle may the most significant.
It's a position about which they haven't had to worry for quite some time. Matt Light held down the position from 2001-2011, playing in 155 of a possible 176 regular-season games. Nate Solder took over for five of the six seasons since then, after the Patriots drafted him 17th overall in 2011 and used him at right tackle as a rookie. Solder missed significant time just once, in 2015, but the Patriots had the luxury of sliding over the experienced Sebastian Vollmer to fill his spot.
Now, with Solder set to hit free agency next week, the luxury is gone. And the decision won't be easy: Pay Solder huge money, or try to make things work in other ways.
Conventional wisdom seems to say that the Patriots need to re-sign Solder, and if it ends up costing $12 million or more per year, then so be it. Tom Brady is going to be 41 years old, and you can't go into the season with a question mark at left tackle. A deal -- any deal -- just has to happen.
But if you consider the alternatives, the picture might not be as dire as some might paint it.
On the roster, the Patriots have Cole Croston. He may not be a household name, but it appears from the outside looking in as if the Patriots are quite high on him. He made the team as an undrafted rookie out of Iowa, where he played both tackle positions, and the team kept him on the 53-man roster all year long. At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, he's got the size to be an NFL left tackle. He's obviously lacking in game experience, as he got just eight offensive snaps all year, but he basically went through a redshirt season with Dante Scarnecchia in the Patriots system while also learning to play at guard. He could be a real candidate for a promotion.
And if not Croston, the Patriots could likely take their pick of LaAdrian Waddle or Cameron Fleming, both of whom are free agents and both of whom will cost much, much less than Solder. The Patriots might be inclined to sign Fleming, considering they spent a fourth-round pick to draft him in 2014 and have brought him along steadily in the years since. The team did have to use Fleming more than they probably wanted in 2015, when Solder was injured, but Fleming ended up seeing the field for 25.4 percent of the team's offensive snaps in 2016 and then 32.4 percent in 2017.
Considering Waddle and Fleming got most of their 2017 work in at right tackle, it's possible the Patriots might consider sliding Marcus Cannon over to the left side. That's a position he's manned before, but the team may be hesitant to relocate him after he really established himself as arguably the best right tackle in the NFL in 2016. At the same time, he's the one player with extensive experience at left tackle for the Patriots. And he carries a legitimate cap hit, so increasing his responsibility would fit with that contract.
Ultimately, it will all come down to how much the Patriots value Solder. It's always challenging to try to compare left tackles to other left tackles with a degree of scientific certainty, but the general consensus on Solder appears to be fairly accurate. He is certainly good and is without a doubt in the better half of the league. But is he top 10? Some games, he is. Others, he's probably just a tier below.
Even Pro Football Focus -- the one entity that tries to earnestly create a scientific method for comparing players -- is a bit all over the board on Solder. They ranked him as the 32nd-best tackle (out of 81 qualified players) in the NFL and gave him a 75.7 grade, which is an average score. That low score, though, was impacted by a slow start to the season for Solder, whose second half was markedly improved.
PFF's Zoltan Buday (awesome name!) wrote on Feb. 21 that the Patriots "must" re-sign Solder. Three days earlier, PFF's Michael Renner (not as cool of a name) wrote that Solder was the best tackle expected to be available on the free-agent market. Both writers admitted that Solder didn't have a dynamite season in 2017 but nevertheless concluded that he will rightfully get paid lots of money.
But on March 2, Renner wrote a story titled "2018 NFL free agents to avoid." Solder made the list.
Despite the appearance, these seemingly disparate opinions are not inconsistent. The feeling, even among evaluators at PFF, is that Solder is better than average but will see significant contract offers largely because there's not a ton out there on the open market.
Assuming that sentiment exists among the top decision-makers in Foxboro, you'd have to imagine that the Patriots won't extend themselves for Solder, who had the second-highest cap hit on the team in 2017. The Patriot Way, in many regards, has largely just involved getting a comparable performance out of a less-heralded player instead of getting a slightly-above-average performance from a player making loads of money.
When you look at it like that, the Patriots might have already made their decision. Sure, they love Solder as a person and as a leader in the locker room, and they like him as a player. He's reliable, consistent, and hard-working. Plus, his character is impeccable. He's been able to deftly deal with every parent's worst nightmare while also continuing to perform his job at a very high level, and he played every single game in a Super Bowl-winning season after dealing with cancer of his own in 2014. It's all a testament to his fortitude.
If the Patriots had their druthers, they'd prefer he remain on the team. But they also operate with a fairly strict business ethos, and it's one that might force Solder to move to a new home if he wants to cash in with the biggest (and likely final) contract of his playing career. Under Belichick, the Patriots are generally prepared for such situations to arise, and if you take a deep breath and analyze the current status of the roster, the left tackle position for 2018 and beyond appears to be no different.
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