With training camp starting this week, the NFL's most quiet period is set to come to an end soon. The New England Patriots' rookies have reported to camp on Monday, while veterans will return to Foxboro today. Tomorrow, finally, the defending world champions will hold their first practice of this year's camp.
Over the next month, players have a chance to earn a spot either on the team's 53-man roster or the practice squad. Throughout the offseason, we will take a look at the men fighting for those few select spots on the 2017 Patriots to find out who will and might be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with the Patriots' starting left tackle.
Name: Nate Solder
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 77
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6’8, 325 lbs.
2016 review: After tearing his biceps in week five of the 2015 season, Nate Solder spent the rest of his fifth year in the NFL on injured reserve. In 2016 and with the injury behind him, the veteran returned to serve in his usual role as the Patriots' starting left tackle. His regular season comeback had to wait until after opening day, though, as Solder was a no-show in week one due to a hamstring injury suffered in preseason.
The following week, Solder was back in the starting lineup – and he would stay there throughout the year. As a result, he finished the regular season having played 1,031 of 1,120 offensive snaps (92.1%) despite being out on opening day while also adding 76 of 449 snaps as a kick protector (16.9%). During the 15 regular season games he appeared in, Solder re-established himself as one of the better left tackles in the league.
Following the regular season, Pro Football Focus rated Solder as New England's best offensive lineman with his pass blocking in particular standing out: Solder, usually going against opponents' top rushers, finished with five sacks given up as well as 11 quarterback hits and 28 hurries. He also helped New England gain 3.55 yards per carry when running behind the left tackle, tied for the second-highest number on the team.
Overall, the Colorado product proved to be a reliable and consistent presence both as a run blocker and as a pass protector. He was able to carry this momentum into the post season, when he played all 242 of New England's offensive snaps as well as 16 of 93 special teams snaps (17.2%). Solder paved the way for a team-high 5.23 yards per rushing attempt and also looked good as in the passing game – at least against the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the NFL's biggest stage, Solder had his worst game of the season: In Super Bowl LI, he gave up a combined 14 pressures and struggled to consistently block the Atlanta Falcons' speedy edge rushers. He did, however, settle down later in the game as the Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to win their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Solder was thus able to put a fitting end – despite his struggles in the title game – to an otherwise very good season.
2017 preview: Even though he is scheduled to hit the team's books with a salary cap number of $11.2 million – the second-highest behind only quarterback Tom Brady –, Nate Solder is a virtual shoo-in to serve as the Patriots' starting left tackle once the 2017 season starts. As such, he will once again play close to 100% of New England's offensive snaps while also being on the field for around 15% of kicking game plays.
While he ended the 2016 season in bittersweet fashion, the 29-year old should be able to bounce back to his pre-Super Bowl form. All in all, he was a very good tackle in 2016 and won with strength, technique and smarts – attributes he still brings to the table this season. Furthermore, Solder's communication and chemistry with left guard Joe Thuney is expected to improve as well.
Consequently, he is projected to be his usual trustworthy self when it comes to protecting Tom Brady's blind side and blocking on perimeter runs. The main question entering the season will therefore be whether or not Solder will receive another contract from the Patriots. With 2017 being the final year of his current two-year deal, the team and its franchise left tackle might spend some time on the negotiating table over the next few months.