The New England Patriots lost a franchise cornerstone this week when the New York Giants reportedly agreed to make Nate Solder the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.
Solder had been New England’s starting left tackle since 2012, and the team lacks an obvious replacement for him, either on its roster or in free agency.
Attempting to re-sign Cameron Fleming and/or LaAdrian Waddle seems to be the Patriots’ best course of action in the wake of Solder’s departure, and that’s exactly what they hope to do, according to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport.
Rapoport also reported the Patriots have “considerable interest” in Austin Howard, who started every game at right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens in 2017. The Ravens released Howard on Tuesday after one season.
As Rapoport alludes to, bringing back Fleming and/or Waddle might not be as cheap or easy as fans might believe. Neither has spent even one full season as a full-time NFL starter, but the lack of free agent talent at the position makes them two of the best free agent tackles currently available.
Fleming and Waddle both played well in relief of injured right tackle Marcus Cannon this past season, starting 10 regular-season games between them. Waddle did not allow a sack all season, and Fleming didn’t fold against very talented fronts in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LII.
Howard, who turns 31 next week, is an NFL journeyman, spending time with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Ravens. He’s started 87 games since 2012, coming off the bench just once during that span, but hasn’t played left tackle since his rookie year in 2010.
The Patriots’ plan also will depend on how they feel about their young, inexperienced in-house options.
They liked Cole Croston enough to keep him on the active roster all season as an undrafted rookie, but he played just nine total snaps, all in garbage time. Tony Garcia, a third-round pick last year, missed his entire rookie season with an illness (reportedly blood clots) and must regain a considerable amount of weight this offseason. Andrew Jelks is an intriguing prospect but hasn’t played since 2014, having lost each of his final two collegiate seasons to torn ACLs.
Given that uncertainty, it would not be at all surprising to see New England use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle this year. UCLA’s Kolton Miller — a tall, athletic pillar who’s drawn comparisons to Solder — could be an option for the Patriots at pick No. 31 or 43. Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown is another potential candidate if he slides down draft boards and the Pats aren’t scared off by his horrendous performance at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Other highly regarded tackle prospects include Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey (who likely will be gone by the time the Patriots pick) and Texas’ Connor Williams.
Solder’s contract in New York reportedly is a four-year, $62 million deal with $34.9 million guaranteed.