New England focuses on the undervalued and the overlooked in free agency, which is one of the reasons the team is wrapping up a second decade as a perennial Super Bowl contender. The Patriots’ team-building strategy has produced a factory line of pseudo-fantasy-relevant running backs, out-of-nowhere wide receivers, and above-average cornerbacks. The Patriots take other teams’ trash, turn it into treasure, and then let that treasure leave in free agency. At every non-Brady position on the team, the Pats rinse, wash, and repeat.
Except left tackle. Tom Brady has spent virtually his entire career with only two left tackles protecting his blind side: Matt Light, whose 153 starts in the Brady–Bill Belichick era are second only to Brady himself, and Nate Solder, who’s started 95 of the Patriots’ 112 games since he was taken in the first round of the 2011 draft as Light’s replacement. Solder, who’s never been selected to a Pro Bowl but has provided the reliable performance many teams around the league desperately need, agreed to a deal with the Giants this week for four years and $34.8 million guaranteed that could be worth as much as $62 million, and now the Patriots have a glaring question mark on Brady’s blind side for the first time since 2002. The Patriots are the best team ever at restocking talent, but left tackle is a far harder position to fill than New England’s usual high-turnover positions—especially since incoming offensive linemen are harder to project than ever. Whoever Belichick taps as Solder’s replacement, Brady likely will (quite literally) feel the impact.
It’s tempting to think about this and shrug. Belichick is the shrewdest roster architect in league history, and the correct answer to nearly every Patriots offseason question mark this century has been, “LOL, they’ll be fine.” Belichick replaced Wes Welker with Julian Edelman, and then last season replaced an injured Edelman with Chris Hogan. Last year, running back Dion Lewis replaced LeGarrette Blount, who replaced Jonas Gray, who replaced Stevan Ridley, who replaced BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who replaced Laurence Maroney, who replaced Corey Dillon. No one cycles through productive players better.
The Pats consistently find cheap, reliable contributors by signing multiple players and hoping one pans out. Snap-count experiments at skill positions are relatively harmless: a running back might make the wrong read, a receiver might run the wrong route, and a cornerback might blow a coverage, but that’s the price you pay to separate the likes of Edelman, Hogan, and Lewis from Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Gray. Mistakes at left tackle can get a quarterback creamed, which is why even the Patriots have been loathe to experiment there.
And this might be a bad time for the Patriots to start cycling through different tackles. Brady took 35 sacks last year, tied for ninth most in football, and just three shy of DeShone Kizer, who is almost literally half Brady’s age. Four of those 35 sacks were allowed by Solder, as were 51 of the 195 pressures he faced. Solder may not have performed at an All-Pro level, but he was a serviceable starter. If his replacement can’t maintain that level of play, a New England line that was already on thin ice could be abysmal.
The most obvious replacements are LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming, who both split time at right tackle when usual starter Marcus Cannon injured his ankle in October, costing him 11 games. In Cannon’s absence, Waddle allowed no sacks, five hits, and four hurries, while Fleming allowed four sacks, no hits, and six hurries, according to data by Pro Football Focus. (For context, Solder had 620 pass-block snaps in 2017, and he allowed four sacks, six hits, and 41 hurries.) But both Waddle and Fleming are currently free agents, and the Patriots may be willing to let Waddle and Fleming leave to preserve their compensatory draft picks in 2019, as ESPN’s Mike Reiss pointed out on Friday.
If those two don’t return, the Patriots could look for outside help. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Patriots were interested in former Ravens tackle Austin Howard, a soon-to-be-31-year-old who started 16 games for the Ravens, but none of the other top free agents at the position—tackles like Chris Clark, Greg Robinson, Marshall Newhouse, Breno Giacomini—inspire confidence. Finding a starting-quality tackle in the draft would be ideal, but with the 31st pick there’s no guarantee one will be available. And finding a tackle in the draft would mean entrusting a rookie to protect a soon-to-be-41-year-old quarterback who already needs to use acupuncture needles (maybe laced with avocados and the blood of Jimmy Garoppolo) to stay in football shape.
New England’s in-house options to fill the tackle spot are grim. The team could shift right tackle Marcus Cannon to the left side, but that would still leave a void at right tackle. The only other tackles on the roster are four 24-year-old unknown commodities. Antonio Garcia was drafted in the third round in 2017, but missed all of last season with blood clots in his lungs. Undrafted rookie Cole Croston played just nine snaps in 2017. Undrafted rookie Andrew Jelks had two ACL tears in his final two years of college and hasn’t played in a football game since 2014. Jason King spent most of his time last season on the practice squad. Those guys may be the type of diamonds in the rough we’re used to the Patriots finding, but asking them to consistently protect Brady this year would be a huge risk.
If anyone in any sport has earned the benefit of the doubt in filling the margins of his roster, it’s Bill Belichick, but his track record of finding skill players and package defenders may not necessarily translate to the hardest non-quarterback position to fill in football. Perhaps New England finds its bargain left tackle in the next two months, and Solder gets added onto the long, long list of Patriots players whose production was replaced for a fraction of the cost. If not, Brady might pay the price.