By 2011 it became clear that the end of the road that is professional football was near for Matt Light, the New England Patriots' starting left tackle since 2001. Due to that, the Patriots drafted his potential replacement with the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft: Nate Solder of the University of Colorado.
Solder was active for all 16 games of his rookie year and even started Super Bowl XLVI as a tackle eligible. After Light's retirement the following offseason, Solder became Tom Brady's full-time blindside protector – a job he has held for two years before the team decided to pick up the fifth year option of his rookie contract.
Per the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, a team can pick up this option after a player's third year in the league. The Patriots did so in April 2014. The option, worth roughly $7.4 million, becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the new league year (one month from today: March 10, 4 p.m. ET). This means that if Solder is on the team on that day, those $7.4 million will hit New England's 2015 cap.
This raises the following question, the Patriots have to ask themselves: what to do?
The team has three possibilities to answer this.
Answer one is the cheapest: release Solder prior to March 10. Since the salary becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the new league year, the team would not have to pay him anything if he's not on the roster that day. This would result in net savings of $6.9 million (as another player would take his spot on the list of 51 players via which a team's offseason salary cap number is calculated). Of course, it is highly doubtful that the Patriots would release Solder, who – even though he struggled at times in 2014 – is one of the better left tackles in the league.
Answer two is the easiest: do nothing. Solder would get his $7.4 million, the Patriots would have a cap hit of $7.4 million. Although it would be the sixth highest cap number on the team (as of today), Solder's hit looks fair compared to starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer's $7.0 million. The front office, however, might have something different in mind with players like Devin McCourty and Stephen Gostkowski entering unrestricted free agency.
Answer three: sign Solder to a contract-extension. New England might opt to offer Solder a contract extension to lower his 2015 cap hit. Of course, just like no team wants to miss a chance to keep one of its core-players long-term, no player wants to miss a chance to collect a $7.4 million check. Thus, the team might opt to give Solder a signing bonus (somewhere in the $6.0 – $8.0 million range), spread out over the length of the contract, to sweeten the deal. This answer has lots of positives: not only would the Patriots secure one of their cornerstones for the future, they would also create immediate cap space to potentially extend, among others, McCourty or Darrelle Revis.
The last answer looks like the best for both the team and the player. The only questions are if a) the Patriots feel comfortable with Solder as their left tackle to commit themselves to him long-term and b) the parties find a common ground before March 10. From a team-perspective, the answer should be relatively easy: Solder is a three-year starter, one of the team's most reliable offensive linemen (together with Vollmer) and one of the better players at one of the game's most crucial positions.
What do you think about this? Should the Patriots extend Nate Solder?