AFC Champiohship FootballTom Brady is by far the most important pierce to the New England Patriots’ championship puzzle. So, keeping him upright and well protected should be a top priority.

Nate Solder and Logan Mankins were two of the NFL’s best blind-side blockers in 2012, keeping Brady comfortable inside the pocket consistently throughout the season. The right side of the line was equally as impressive, led by arguably the best right tackle in football, Sebastian Vollmer. But the Patriots will have to make a hefty investment this offseason if they plan on keeping their All-Pro tackle in New England for the foreseeable future — and they should.

Tackles are a valued commodity in the NFL, and guys with supreme talent like Vollmer don’t come along every day.

Through four NFL seasons, Vollmer has developed into a consistent and reliable blocker on Brady’s front side. He has established himself as one of the leagues’ premier pass protectors and become a strong run blocker for Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and the rest of the running backs. Needless to say, he’s turned into one of the most valuable members of the Patriots’ offense, and now he deserves to be paid like one.

Vollmer is headed for free agency this offseason and should command some big dollars if he hits the market. The Patriots can’t let their franchise tackle get that close to the long line of suitors awaiting him, though. They need to lock him up now, even before Wes Welker or Aqib Talib.

Welker and Talib have commanded the headlines and most of the chatter this offseason, but Vollmer should be the primary focus over the next month. No, he doesn’t post the flashy numbers of Welker or make the eyebrow-raising interceptions like Talib, but his job is to keep Brady safe, and that is more important than any single touchdown or turnover.

Sure, Vollmer’s injury history is a concern and should raise some red flags in offering him a long-term extension. Vollmer has played in just 51 of the 64 possible games during his four-year career, and recurring back problems have limited him to just 21 games over the past two seasons. But even with the lingering issues, the potential reward is well worth the risk with Vollmer.

Vollmer won’t be looking for anything like the seven-year, $84 million deal that Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas got two years ago, nor would he command that sort of cash on the open market. At 28 — soon to be 29 — Vollmer may be in line for something a little more like the four years and $22 million Eric Winston got from the Kansas City Chiefs last year.

The price doesn’t appear to be too steep, and the Patriots don’t need a reliable pair of bookend tackles to protect their most valuable asset. So, paying Vollmer seems like no-brainer at this point. Welker and Talib should be considered ahead of the start of free agency on March 12, but Vollmer needs to be the top priority.

If the hopes of another Super Bowl run are going to become a reality in New England, then Brady will be the key. But first he’ll need to be comfortable, and that comfort starts with Vollmer.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

Pick Six
The six biggest Trendsetters of the past week in the NFL

Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins: Up — RG3’s season-ending knee injury wasn’t pretty, but it looks like the Offensive Rookie of the Year is ahead of schedule. Redskins fans, your prayers may have paid off.

Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings: Down — Harvins’s trade value might be sky high, but his public perception has to be at an all-time low. It sounds like we have another prima donna wide receiver on our hands.

O.J. Simpson: Up — If this guy isn’t living it up inside those barred walls, then I don’t know who is. Even Andy Dufresne didn’t have it this good.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: Down — Gronk has been getting some bad press for his offseason antics, including wrestling at a Las Vegas nightclub. But hey, he’s 23 years old, and “sorry for partying.”

Michael Vick, QB, Eagles: Up — Vick was thought to be destined for the free-agent market, but instead he got seven million — and what could be 10 million — reasons to stay in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, commanding Chip Kelly‘s offense could be just the thing to revive his career.

Dennis Dixon, QB, Eagles: Up — For the same reason Vick’s career arc could be on an upward swing, Dixon also may be looking at a big career boost. A reunion with Kelly, his former offensive coordinator, can only be a good omen for the former Oregon quarterback. Also, just a fun note, Dixon has been on three Super Bowl teams, which is as many games as he’s started in the NFL. Chew on that until next week.