Editor’s Note 1: the following was written in between the report that Richard Sherman was being released and his new deal with the San Francisco 49ers. The overall point still stands, so don’t think of it like sour grapes, please.
Editor’s Note 2: for contextual purposes, the following conversation takes place during the days of the 2-14 Tennessee Titans.
There’s a guy who hosts a tailgate I go to a few times a year who’s always good for some great food, good company, and a spicy draft take or two, and sometimes, well, the TEAM NEEDS list starts looking a little bit like the criteria in “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”. Case in point, this gameplan to fix the Tennessee Titans during a season that would end in a record only matched by the 2-14 Buccaneers:
“They need a SHUTDOWN CORNER, and better pass-rushers, and a true #1 receiver, and a corner that can cover a #2 receiver, someone that can take the top off a defense, and an enforcer at safety, and-”
“So they need 3 shutdown corners, huh?”
...Which seems to be where half of everyone looking at the 2018 Patriots is at right now, approximately. One shutdown corner is no longer gonna cut the mustard around here. New England needs to pair Stephon Gilmore (who isn’t quite in “SHUTDOWN” territory yet, but judging by his progress from Week 1 to locking up Alshon Jeffery in the second half of the Super Bowl, he’s close enough for the purposes of this discussion) with Richard Sherman, or Aqib Talib before Los Angeles beat the Patriots to the punch, or Trumaine Johnson, or, I mean, pick anyone else who may or may not be available by trade.
Never mind that it’s been pretty well documented that you don’t need a shutdown corner to win a Super Bowl, much less Gilmore and an All-Pro like Sherman; the Patriots’ most glaring roster need can be found two dudes over to the left from David Andrews.
A second BAMF corner is living your best life; a second BAMF corner at the expense of losing your in-house left tackle that also happens to be one of the better LT’s in football is buying a beach vacation in Key West when you know damn well the rent is due in two weeks.
Could they do both? Sure, maybe. Right now PatsCap has the Patriots’ cap room at $22.6 million and some change, which is maaaaayyyyybe enough to keep Solder and go after a Richard Sherman or Trumaine Johnson. Assuming you don’t plan on signing anyone else at all during free agency without cutting some other guys (hey Dwayne Allen) to free up some cap space.
More than that, though, here’s the TL;DR on re-signing Nate for at least a couple more years not being the Patriots #1 priority - it needs to be their ONLY priority, and then whatever happens, happens:
- There are no other good left tackles available anywhere. This includes the draft.
- The offensive line had some bad games and let Brady get rocked WITH Solder last year. Imagine if he left.
- Want to give Tom Brady the best chance at another ring before he retires? Give him the best protector around. Who also, cannot emphasize this enough, IS ALREADY HERE.
Now that we’ve laid those three out so that some of you can get on with your lives, let’s hit each of those 3 individually.
There aren’t any better options in free agency or the draft
I swear to god I’m going to pistol whip the next person who says “Well, if Tony Garcia...”
Tony Garcia is a third-round pick from Troy University who didn’t play a single regular season snap because doctors found blood clots in his lungs. Garcia has also supposedly dropped down to weighing in the 260s, which is a fine weight for John Hannah to play at, a 2017 NFL offensive tackle, not so much. This is not a viable fallback plan.
Neither is “just draft another left tackle if Solder leaves”. Aside from most capable left tackles being drafted almost as high as quarterbacks (read: too high for New England to even sniff them without making a monster draft pick trade), this draft class isn’t looking stocked with franchise LT’s either. Going by Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com’s top 50 draft prospects, only 4 offensive tackles are featured, and at least two of them (Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey) are almost surefire top-20 picks.
As far as free agency goes, here’s a list of all the available offensive tackles you need to know about:
No, seriously, have you seen this list of free agent offensive tackles? It’s a murderer’s row of career backups and guys that used to play in New York. BARF.
The 2017 offensive line wasn’t elite, but the domino effect of losing Solder could be a disaster
As anyone who won this award in Little League can confirm, the necessary “Well, yeah” that goes along with winning “Most Improved” is that, at one point, you were probably pretty bad.
By the end of the season, the Patriots protectors were playing well enough - minus 2016 second-team All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon - to only give up one sack to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. I surely don’t remind you which play that was.
To get there, though, the offensive line slogged through a first half of the season that saw Tom Brady under some of the most pressure in the entire NFL and take hits at a rate that’d make Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck wince. Oh, and both of the swing tackles that filled in for Cannon at right tackle? They’re free agents as well, and ironically may be some of the better options given the wasteland of offensive tackle talent out there.
It really can’t be overstated how absurd the turnaround from the first few games of the season to the postseason was for the big guys up front - and that’s been the story of the Patriots offensive line at least since Rodney Harrison said after the ‘14 Kansas City Barbecue that Tom Brady “looks scared to death back there” (which, ironically, has been overshadowed by Trent Dilfer’s iconic “They’re just not good anymore!”). Now, from 2014, let’s say you got rid of Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Sebastian Vollmer deservedly retired, and after Dante Scarnechia’s return in 2016, the team goes to back-to-back Super Bowls playing against some of the best defensive lines in the AFC in the playoffs. Scar has this line - which has kept the same gang together for two years in a row now - cooking with gas. Messing that up by letting Solder walk over a few bucks would be the Freaky Friday reverse of “Bill Belichick is smart, but sometimes he succeeds just by aiding other teams’ efforts to be stupid.”
Want to go “All In” to win Tom Brady’s sixth championship? Pay to keep him safe.
By my math, ever since about 2007 or so, the vast majority of New England tends to get EXTREMELY jelly when they see another team going ALL IN to win a championship.
Remember the Saints when they signed All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd, drafted a little speed receiver by the name of Brandin Cooks, paid a svelte $41.5 million to edge defender Junior Gallette, and franchised Jimmy Graham for another shot at football immortality with Drew Brees? Or when the Seahawks, and I’m truly being 100% serious here, locked up the All-Pros and Pro Bowlers from the glorious ‘12, ‘13, and ‘14 teams on long-term deals, let second-banana players like Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner, Bruce Irvin, and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith walk, and swung for the fences to give Madden-created-player Russell Wilson some WEAPONS by trading for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham?
Or pretty much anytime the Steelers seem to find $20 in their jacket pocket to re-sign all their key players at every position by re-structuring Ben Roethlisberger’s deal every other week?
For the past 15 years, anything short of a world championship at Patriots HQ is a failure. And it’ll continue to be that way until Brady hangs them up, whenever that is. There’s a clear best option at left tackle - you know, the position charged with keeping some of the best edge rushers in the game off of the greatest quarterback of all time - and he just so happens to be up for a new deal right before his 30th birthday. Nate’s one of the only two left tackles that Tom Brady’s ever known in the pros. Is he Joe Thomas or Joe Staley? Obviously not. Doesn’t matter.
Don’t make this more complicated than it has to be by creating new roster black holes where there’s a no-brainer solution.
The franchise tag isn’t an option, due to some clever work by Solder’s agent in his last deal. In his “Agent’s Take” column, CBS Sports’ Joel Corry has an “ideal” contract (from Nate’s perspective, anyway) pegged at 5 years and $72.5 million, with $40 million guaranteed, $31.5 guaranteed at signing, and $46.5 over the first three years. That sounds all right.
You know what else sounds all right?
Giving Nate a blank check and telling him “Just fill this out and get it back to us when you’re ready”.
Unless Solder suddenly decides he wants quarterback money, if that’s what it takes, then that’s what it takes.