New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has only played with two full-time left tackles throughout his 18-season NFL career.
Brady had Matt Light protecting his blind side from 2001 to 2011 and Nate Solder from 2012 to 2017. Now the Patriots must find a third, and it won’t be easy.
Solder reportedly will sign a four-year contract with the New York Giants as an unrestricted free agent that will make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL. It’s easy to see why the Patriots didn’t want to pay Solder $15 million per year, but losing him is still extremely concerning for the team lacking in-house options while looking at a barren market.
Here are the Patriots’ options for a left tackle in 2018:
The Patriots currently have offensive tackles Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks and Antonio Garcia under contract for 2018.
Cannon is much better at right tackle, but he’s also probably the Patriots best option at left tackle right now.
Croston played left and right tackle at Iowa but only was on the field for eight offensive snaps during the 2017 season after coming to the team as an undrafted free agent.
Jelks started at left tackle as a sophomore at Vanderbilt then missed two consecutive seasons with torn ACLs. He spent all of 2017 on the Patriots’ non-football injury list.
Garcia would be a great in-house option if he didn’t spend all of 2017 on the non-football illness list with reported blood clots in his lungs. He was down to 260 pounds by the end of the 2017 season after already struggling to maintain weight in college at Troy.
LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are free agents. Both played well as backup swing tackles in 2017, but it’s unlikely the Patriots want to count on either player as a full-time starting left tackle in 2018. It’s definitely worth bringing one or both players back as insurance in 2018, however.
The Patriots hold the 31st, 43rd and 63rd overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft. It would be wise to draft the starting left tackle of the future (and possibly the present) as early as possible. The Patriots even could package picks to move up in the draft.
Here are the offensive tackles who could be selected in the first two rounds:
Connor Williams, Texas
Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State
Tyrell Crosby, Oregon
Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh
Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan
Alex Cappa, Humboldt State
Kolton Miller, UCLA
Miller, O’Neill, Williams and Crosby are the best fits from an athletic perspective.
Solder was far and away the best left tackle available, and there really aren’t any other intriguing options.
The Patriots could try a reclamation project by signing Greg Robinson. They could choose to sign Justin Pugh to play right tackle if they plan to move Cannon to the left side.
Trading for Cleveland’s Joe Thomas is out of the picture; he announced his retirement Wednesday afternoon. Would the Philadelphia Eagles listen to trade offers for Jason Peters? He’s on the older side Patriots also plan to draft a left tackle, then it would be preferable to have a one- or two-year fill-in.
WHAT SHOULD THE PATRIOTS DO?
If the Patriots can’t swing a trade, they should re-sign one of Fleming or Waddle. That player then would compete with Croston, Jelks, Garcia and an early draft pick for the starting job in training camp. Starting Fleming or Waddle at left tackle is far from optimal, but at least the Patriots know what they have in those players.
Moving Cannon to left tackle could hurt the offensive line more than having a player fill in until a rookie can play. That would make the Patriots worse at left and right tackle.