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The emergence of LaAdrian Waddle gives the Patriots more flexibility entering 2018 free agency

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Three of New England's top four tackles become free agents after the season.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

While the New England Patriots faced some questions along the offensive line early on this season, the unit has rebounded nicely as of late. Sunday’s 41-16 blowout win over the Denver Broncos, a team with one of the league’s most talented defenses, was the group’s best performance of the year – and it came without one of its usual starting members on the field: Right tackle Marcus Cannon was out with an ankle injury.

In Cannon’s place, LaAdrian Waddle received the 24th start of his career. He made it count and allowed only one quarterback hit all night long. The game has been the highest point of Waddle’s surprisingly solid second full season in New England, a team he joined via trade with the Detroit Lions in 2015. Since then, the Texas Tech product has steadily climbed up the depth chart.

This year, Waddle has overtaken incumbent number three tackle Cameron Fleming and as such already played 199 offensive snaps this season – a noticeable increase when compared to the 38 he had played during his first one-and-a-half years in New England. But Waddle's emergence is not only noticeable in terms of the 2017 season; it also could become important when looking ahead.

After all, three of the Patriots' top four offensive tackles are about to hit unrestricted free agency next March. Among them is starting left tackle Nate Solder. Solder and current tackles numbers three and four – Waddle and Fleming – will all be looking for new contracts after this season. The six-year starter, naturally, projects be the toughest to re-sign but could very well be a candidate to receive a contract extension before the season is over.

Even if Solder does not get bound to the franchise long-term over the next four months, New England appears to be set up relatively well at the position. A big reason for that is Waddle's recent play and his potential as a starter in the NFL, which in turn would soften the blow of losing Solder next March – especially considering that currently injured third round rookie Anthony Garcia is also waiting in the wings.

Of course, Waddle is also set to hit the open market. However, due to his relative lack of exposure over the last few years, he likely will not generate the same buzz as Solder – which in turn makes him a perfect contingency option in case the current starter (or maybe even Fleming) leave. At the very least, Waddle gives the team more flexibility when it comes to contract negotiations.

Solder should still be the priority to get an extension due to his knowledge of the system, experience and upside. But if the veteran's camp and the team fail to reach a common ground and the Patriots opt to look for other options, Waddle seems like a solid one to hold down the fort at least until Garcia – to borrow from Game of Thrones – “comes of age”; particularly considering that his price tag is projected to be a much smaller one than Solder's.

At the moment, though, this is all just hypothetical. Nevertheless, Waddle has proven his abilities to step in if need be and perform under pressure. Those characteristics could come in handy in regards to free agency and how the Patriots, who now appear to have one more viable option at the tackle position, might approach it.