In a sport typically characterized as the ultimate team game, it is amazing how often the addition of a single contributor can, seemingly over night, launch an organization’s success. Whether through free agency, the draft, or simply a player’s return to health after an absence in 2016, an abundance of such additions over the course of this season have changed the landscape of divisions, and shaped the current playoff picture in both conferences.
A pair of day-two rookie running backs burst onto the scene in Kansas City and New Orleans, becoming critical, game-changing components in their respective offenses. With a dynamic defensive core already in place in Jacksonville, primarily assembled through the draft with a few key additions from previous editions of free agency, the addition of versatile veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell proved to be the spark that ignited what is likely the league’s most feared defensive attack.
In New England, the defending champions’ busy offseason, which included the acquisition of Brandin Cooks, seemed to distract from their most significant single addition to the roster — Rob Gronkowski — who has reemerged as the AFC’s (and possibly the NFL’s) greatest mismatch.
And no one batted an eye when the Minnesota Vikings quietly signed backup quarterback Case Keenum to a modest one-year deal in March. As Pro Football Weekly’s Eric Edholm pointed out on Wednesday, his performance thus far in 2017 certainly places him among the most impactful additions to any organization this season.
Sure, it’s difficult to argue with the sizable effect the quarterback position can have in altering a franchise’s inertia (insert cliché regarding quarterbacks touching the ball every play here). And we need only glance at San Francisco’s last four contests for any additional evidence for the immediacy of a quarterback’s influence. Amazingly, such an instantaneous impact was achieved by the player whose addition was the most substantial of any in 2017 — and he isn’t a quarterback.
On March 9th, the first day of the NFL free agency period, 2015 First-Team All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth signed a three-year, $33.75 million contract ($15 million guaranteed) with the Los Angeles Rams. The 36-year-old former LSU Tiger and tenured Cincinnati Bengal entering his 12th season knew he had his work cut out for him in his new city.
It’s a narrative that has been talked to death, but it can’t be understated just how destitute the Rams’ outlook was around the time of Jeff Fisher’s firing. New 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay inherited an offense that was the worst in football. Todd Gurley’s dominant rookie season production had become a distant memory as he mustered just 3.2 yards per carry against and endless barrage of loaded boxes. Quarterback Jared Goff, the 2016 draft’s top overall selection who quickly became known for his inability to decipher the directions in which our sun rises and sets, compiled a 63.6 rating while being sacked 26 times in seven winless starts.
To say that the Ram’s offensive line was dumpster fire in 2016 would be an insult to dumpsters. Veteran Rodger Saffold, a left tackle in his early years with the organization, was shifted from his starting left guard duties back to the outside in week-11 to replace Greg Robinson — the team’s frustrating draft bust. Robinson reportedly showed up to camp 15 pounds overweight, and after a terrible 10-game start to the season that included more than a dozen penalties, the New Orleans native was made a healthy scratch when the team visited the Super Dome.
With Whitworth’s arrival came immediate stability. Naturally, Saffold shifted back to left guard, and the two have helped power a Rams attack that is the highest scoring in the NFL. Clean pockets have helped Jared Goff’s year-two progression skyrocket — leading to his selection as a Pro Bowl alternate. And Todd Gurley, with room to operate, has become a legitimate MVP candidate with almost 2,100 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns.
With a victory on Sunday, the Rams will have flipped their 4-12 record from a season ago. And as the NFC’s third or fourth seed, a home playoff game lies on the horizon for them next weekend.
The course of action taken last offseason to spur the Rams’ rapid, emphatic turnaround will likely be regarded, to a degree, as a template by anxious NFL front offices eager to ignite the same meteoric rise to competitive relevance in their clubs (insert “copycat league” cliché here). The addition and subsequent on-field impact of a talented veteran at a critical position like Andrew Whitworth is a cornerstone of such a template.
All of this bodes extremely well for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder — not that the market for his services was in need of a boost.
The former first round pick and two-time Super Bowl champion will be heading into his eighth NFL season next year after playing out the two-year, $20 million extension he signed in September of 2015 — a deal that included a provision preventing New England from placing the franchise tag on him.
Thanks to that bit of contractual craftsmanship, the Patriots’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee has been assured of an opportunity to seek a new contract on the lucrative free agent market in March.
It’s a market he already has cornered.
Solder’s upcoming free agency period appears to be a perfect illustration of supply and demand economics boiled down to its purest form. With scarcity at the left tackle position at an apparent all-time high, he is the only player available possessing a notable resumé of quality NFL experience and production — leaving little doubt that there will be an abundance of suitors vying for his talents this spring.
The lack of comparable competition on the market isn’t the only advantage Solder and his management team will have. There is another projected increase in the salary cap of around seven percent in 2018, putting the league-wide figure roughly between $174-178 million. Franchises are also expected to be rolling over a record amount of unused cap space from this season — further increasing their adjusted team cap figures.
Then there’s good old-fashioned recency bias. The signings and successes of left tackles Riley Reiff in Minnesota, and the aforementioned Andrew Whitworth in Los Angeles, will only serve to bolster the incredibly high premium already being placed on the position.
By no means should Solder’s skill set be confused with those of his peers in the elite category of left tackles like Tyron Smith, David Bakhtiari, Joe Thomas, and Trent Williams. Yet, when taking all of the components into consideration, there’s no reason to believe that, on a per year basis, he won’t be paid like them — or perhaps even more.
The financial stars have aligned for Nate Solder after seven years in Foxborough filled with incredible on-field triumphs, and unimaginable off-field strife. There couldn’t possibly be a player, or a family, more deserving.