The New England Patriots invested two of their four draft picks in the offensive tackle position, despite having one of the top tackle tandems in the league with LT Nate Solder and RT Marcus Cannon. The Patriots gave Cannon a 5-year extension halfway through the 2016 season, but Solder and fellow tackles Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle projected to be free agents after the 2017 season.
The Patriots wanted to be a year early at the tackle position, rather than a year too late.
New England selected OT Tony Garcia with the 85th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft with the intention of grooming him for a season before possibly inserting him into the starting lineup at left tackle in 2018.
In my opinion, the ideal situation would be to retain LT Nate Solder on a 4-year extension, while keeping Garcia as the team’s top swing tackle, but Solder has shown little interest in rushing to sign a contract extension. There’s a key reason why Solder is in no rush- and why the Patriots needed to draft a tackle in 2017 and it’s the same reason why the Patriots rushed to extend Cannon.
The upcoming free agent offensive tackle class is atrocious and the Patriots don’t want to rely on a rookie to protect Tom Brady.
This past offseason, the 29-year-old Cannon would have been the second-best tackle on the market behind the 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth; that difference in age would make Cannon the most valuable tackle in free agency.
So once the Atlanta Falcons extended RT Ryan Schraeder to a 5-year, $31.5 million extension in November, the Patriots inked Cannon to a 5-year, $32.4 million extension the very next week.
Whitworth signed a 3-year, $33.8 million contract in free agency. Ricky Wagner, the next-best available tackle and the best right tackle on the market, signed a 5-year, $47.5 million deal with the Detroit Lions. Both the Patriots and Falcons retained their right tackles on relative bargains compared to the cost of free agency.
But beyond those two players, there weren’t really any other high-quality tackles on the market and there were no surefire tackle prospects in the draft, which looks to be a similar story for 2018 offseason.
The offensive tackles in the upcoming draft looks as promising as those in the 2017 draft in the sense that much of the talent relies on whether or not the underclassmen declare early- a risk the Patriots can’t afford to take, especially when there aren’t many tackles that meet Bill Belichick’s preferred physical profile at the position. There’s a very real chance that next year’s tackle class could be as questionable as this past draft.
The free agency offensive tackle class is even worse.
Outside of Solder, the next best tackle would be Raiders OT Donald Penn, who will be 35 years old next season. Penn is a great tackle, but Solder will be valued at a much higher level due to the age difference.
Bears LT Charles Leno is the only other unrestricted free agent worth noting as the 6’4, soon-to-be 26 year old has started 29 straight games at left tackle after entering the league as a 7th round pick. He doesn’t match the Patriots size profile and to give you a sense of his caliber, he ranks behind Patriots swing tackle Cameron Fleming in Pro Football Focus’ rankings.
And to be honest, Fleming should be highlighted as another unrestricted free agent tackle of note.
There are two projected restricted free agents that played 300+ snaps at tackle last season in Steelers OT Alejandro Villanueva and Washington OT Ty Nsekhe. Both are older players with just two years of experience.
Villanueva will be 29 years old in 2018 after graduating Army in 2010 and not landing on a team until signing with the Eagles practice squad in 2014 and the Steelers active roster in 2015. Villanueva was thrust into the starting line-up in 2015 due to injuries and was one of the worst tackles in the league, per Pro Football Focus. Like Cannon, he rebounded with a strong 2016 campaign and could be in line for a solid extension.
Nsekhe will be 32 years old after playing five seasons in various Arena Football Leagues and spending four years as a camp or practice squad body in the NFL. He finally made Washington’s roster in 2015 and has started 6 games over the past two seasons (mostly thanks to a 4-game suspension of LT Trent Williams). He has limited value in free agency.
That’s seriously the entire free agent tackle class worth noting. Solder. Penn. Leno. Old restricted free agents Villanueva and Nsekhe. We could throw in projected restricted free agent Cowboys OL La’el Collins, who is expected to make the transition to right tackle after spending two seasons at left guard, but that’s a projection at this point in time.
Cameron Fleming can possibly join Solder as two of the three best unrestricted offensive tackle in next year’s free agency and that’s a scary thought.
But this dearth of talent is why the Patriots needed to invest in the tackle position for 2017. Assuming he remains healthy, Solder will have his pick of the teams next year in free agency and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he fielded offers in the $13 million range at the top of the league. New England might not be willing to match and might want to keep Solder in a similar $10-11 million contract that he’s been playing under over the past two seasons.
In an ideal world, New England will find a way to keep Solder off the market and make the tackle market even uglier in 2018, but the Patriots added Tony Garcia just in case the two sides can’t reach an agreement.