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2018 NFL free agency: Why re-signing Nate Solder is the Patriots’ top priority this offseason

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With free agency fast approaching, Patriots left tackle Nate Solder is the first big domino to fall for the Pats this offseason.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The defending AFC Champions enter the 2018 offseason with a long list of needs on the defensive side of the ball and some key free agents on the offense side of the ball. We all expected the Patriots to make a competitive offer to re-sign cornerback Malcolm Butler, but after his benching in the Super Bowl, it appears that Butler is no longer in the team’s plans.

With Butler out of the mix, that leaves the Patriots some wiggle room to give the money previously allocated to Butler to other key free agents this offseason.

(c) spotrac

Although names such as Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola stand out, the Patriots’ most important free agent in 2018 is left tackle Nate Solder.

Solder received a grade of 75.7 on the season from Pro Football Focus, which is considered average for a starter. He graded poorly in pass protection (69.8) but was the 12th-best tackle in terms of run blocking according to PFF (83.2). Those grades, however, got increasingly better as the season went on and by the time the playoffs came around Solder was playing at high level.

In fact, over the Patriots’ last 15 games including the playoffs, Solder allowed just one sack in pass protection on 549 passing plays. And that includes games against two of the NFL’s premier pass rushes in the Jaguars and Eagles.

And as always, Solder continues to be a weapon for the Patriots in the run game due to his rare combination of size and athleticism.

(Solder doubles the DT with Thuney at the point of attack and climbs to the LB)

(Solder executes the hook block on the edge perfectly to lead the way for White)

As we know, there are off-field factors that you have to consider when evaluating Solder’s play and his looming free agent decision: Due to his son’s health, it’s possible that Solder may accept a more reasonable contract to remain in New England. Boston has some of the best hospitals in the world and staying with the Patriots will also provide stability for his family.

Even when you factor in those real-life issues, Solder was still a rock on the left side of the Patriots’ offensive line, and his departure would be a massive blow to the Patriots chances at another Super Bowl in 2018. Backups LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are also free agents, and as of right now the team can’t expect anything from 2017 third round pick Tony Garcia. Garcia missed the entire 2017 season with an undisclosed illness.

If the Pats let Solder walk, there would be no real succession plan in place at left tackle. They could re-sign either Waddle or Fleming for insurance, but neither are long-term answers. The Patriots have always had a plan at left tackle, and have had incredible stability at the position since Tom Brady made his NFL debut. In 309 regular season and playoff games since 2001. Solder and Pats legend Matt Light combined to start 235 of them at left tackle (76%).

The tackle position has always been one of the most critical spots on the roster when it comes to team building. And unfortunately, the position in the draft has gone dry in recent seasons.

The days of no-brainers such as Joe Thomas or Tyron Smith are over and shoddy picks such as Ereck Flowers (ninth overall in 2015) and Greg Robinson (second overall in 2014) are the new norm.

The college game has embraced spread offenses and changed the way that offensive lineman play the game, which has led to a steep learning curve for most when entering the NFL and forced NFL coaches to teach basic fundamentals to guys coming in through the draft. That has forced teams to turn to free agency to protect their quarterbacks, and last offseason we saw an unprecedented amount of money spent on the tackle position.

Left tackles Russell Okung ($13.3M APY), Riley Reiff ($11.8M APY), Andrew Whitworth ($11.3M APY), and Matt Kalil ($11.1 APY) all broke the bank in free agency, and other tackles received large contracts as well. Which leaves Solder, a starting caliber left tackle that’s certainly on par with those that hit the jackpot last offseason set to hit the open market.

When NFL free agency starts on March 14th, Solder will be arguably the best tackle available and given the state of drafting tackles, arguably the best tackle available via the draft or free agency.

However, despite what may be a hefty price tag, the Patriots shouldn’t hesitate to re-sign Solder. And his looming free agency will determine how much cap space the Patriots have to go out and sign other free agents.

Currently, the Patriots are set to have roughly $13 million in cap space when the new league year begins on March 14th, according to cap guru @PatsCap. That would put them near the bottom of the league in cap space, but with a few cuts they can free up plenty of space to target free agents.

For example, cutting veterans Martellus Bennett, Dwayne Allen, Kenny Britt, Mike Gillislee, Alan Branch, Shea McClellin, and David Harris would free up $34 million in cap space. Bennett, Allen, and Branch have hefty price tags in 2018 if the team doesn’t release them, which means its a near certainty that they won’t play for the Patriots next season at their current cap hits.

There’s also the possibility that the Patriots could restructure deals or sign players currently under contract to extensions to lower there 2018 cap hits. Tom Brady and wide receiver Brandin Cooks come to mind as candidates for extensions. In other words, the Patriots have plenty of ways to free up cap space, and shouldn’t be held back by the cap from making moves this offseason.

The first big domino to fall for the Patriots will be Solder, and the Patriots find themselves in a position where he has all the leverage.