Patriots Offseason Outlook: Why Nate Solder Is Pats’ Most Important Free Agent

After having their bid for back-to-back Super Bowl titles thwarted by the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England have some questions to answer.

Before the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off later this month, marking the unofficial start of the NFL offseason, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the Patriots’ roster. We’ll examine which players stood out in 2017, which ones have some work to do this offseason and which ones could be leaving town.

Next up: the offensive line.

UNDER CONTRACT
David Andrews, center
Shaq Mason, guard
Joe Thuney, guard
Marcus Cannon, tackle
Cole Croston, tackle
Tony Garcia, tackle
Andrew Jelks, tackle
Jason King, tackle (practice squad)
James Ferentz, center (practice squad)

IMPENDING FREE AGENTS
Nate Solder, tackle
Cameron Fleming, tackle
LaAdrian Waddle, tackle
Ted Karras, guard/center

STANDOUT PERFORMER
Mason, who easily could have earned a Pro Bowl selection this season. The Georgia Tech product is a devastating run blocker who also fared well in pass protection in 2017, allowing just one sack during the entire regular season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Unfortunately for New England, Mason’s biggest mistake came at the worst possible time. Philly’s Brandon Graham beat the third-year pro on his pivotal strip sack of Tom Brady in the final minutes of Super Bowl LII.

Andrews also had a very strong season after signing a three-year contract extension last May, and Waddle and Fleming were surprisingly solid in relief of Cannon, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8. Cannon, a second-team All-Pro in 2016, looked great pre-injury, and Solder turned things around over the second half of the season after a shaky start.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT
There are no glaring weak spots on the Patriots’ O-line, but Thuney had the worst season of the starting five, surrendering five sacks and the fifth-most pressures of any NFL guard, per PFF.

TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Will Solder be back?

The 29-year-old left tackle is the Patriots’ most important impending free agent, simply because there is zero certainty behind him on the depth chart. Fleming and Waddle both are set to hit free agency, as well, and no other tackle on the roster even comes close to having enough experience to take over starting duties at such an important position.

Croston played just nine total snaps in garbage time as an undrafted rookie, and Garcia, Jelks and King never have appeared in a regular-season NFL game.

Solder, a first-round draft pick in 2011, has been the Patriots’ primary left tackle since 2012, when he took over for the retiring Matt Light. If he signs elsewhere, New England will need to bring in reinforcements from outside the organization.

The free agent market for tackles does not look promising, but there are some intriguing prospects near the top of the 2018 draft class.

2. Expect to hear Garcia’s name a lot this summer. He was the Patriots’ second selection (third round, 85th overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft but spent his entire rookie season on the non-football illness list.

Undersized coming into the draft, Garcia reportedly had dropped to 260 pounds by the end of the season — far too light for an NFL tackle. (For comparison, Solder is listed at 325 pounds, and Cannon is listed at 335.) The 24-year-old has a ton of work ahead of him if he hopes to make an impact as an NFL sophomore.

Jelks is another interesting case. He missed his final two seasons at Vanderbilt with torn ACLs and hasn’t played in a game since 2014. The Patriots liked Jelks’ potential enough to keep him on their 90-man roster all of last summer, though, and if he can replicate his collegiate success — Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said he was the Commodores’ best player in 2014 — he could make some noise in camp.

Patriots offseason preview: Quarterbacks | Running backs | Tight ends | Wide receivers | Defensive line/ends | Linebackers | Cornerbacks | Safeties (Feb. 22)