Yesterday, the 2018 NFL free agency was officially kicked off and it was a busy start from the New England Patriots' perspective, although not an entirely positive one: Even before the market opened, it was reported that starting left tackle Nate Solder would leave New England via free agency to sign a four-year, $62 million contract with the New York Giants – the biggest deal for an offensive lineman in the NFL.
It was not all negative, though, as the Patriots were also able to re-sign running back Rex Burkhead to what was reported to be a three-year contract. With Dion Lewis leaving to join the Tennessee Titans, keeping Burkhead in the fold has to be considered a success for New England – especially after all the other losses the team had to suffer.
The running back depth chart already appears to be set
Rex Burkhead returning to the Patriots is good news for the team as it keeps the running back rotation relatively intact even with Dion Lewis gone. As has been the as the case last season, the 27-year old will will probably be used as a jack-of-all-trades and form the top of the position depth chart together with James White and Mike Gillislee. In this role, Burkhead will see frequent action as both a ball carrier and receiving back (all while likely playing considerable snaps on special teams again).
With Nate Solder gone, New England needs to find a capable left tackle...
There is no sugarcoating it: Losing Nate Solder to the Giants is a big blow to a Patriots team that appears to not have a clear-cut in-house replacement option available. Still, New England has options when it comes to finding the 29-year old's replacement. Both LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming are still unsigned, for example, while the team enters the 2018 draft with solid capital at its disposal to potentially target one of the top tackle prospects. No matter how it is done, the Patriots need to find a capable blindside protector for Tom Brady.
...but the Patriots likely have a contingency plan in mind
With Nate Solder being the latest starting-caliber player to leave New England, one thing has to be kept in mind: The Patriots front office, more so than any other in the NFL, has always been able to adapt and plan for all eventualities. With a chance that the starting left tackle left via free agency, the team likely already had a plan B in mind – even though it might take some time for it to materialize.
The Patriots have earned another high compensatory draft pick
There is one positive in Nate Solder signing a mega-deal with the Giants: It all but guarantees that the Patriots will have at least one third round draft pick in 2019. The team traded its original third rounder to the Cleveland Browns as part of the deal that sent Danny Shelton to New England, but Solder's contract will return it as part of the compensatory formula. Add the departure of Malcolm Butler via a five-year, $61 million contract and New England is looking at two addition picks in the top 100.
New England is linked to two defenders but it would be a surprised if either joined the team
When a big-name free agent enters the open market, there is a solid chance that the Patriots are linked to him at one point. The same happened yesterday when it was reported that the team were in the mix for both pass rusher Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. There could be legit interest from New England's side, yes, but it appears likely that the team is once again used as a tool to drive the price up. It would be a surprised if either of the two played – both projected to receive big offers – wound up in Foxboro.
New England has almost $20 million in salary cap space left
The Patriots currently have $19.73 million in salary cap available (per patscap's Miguel Benzan) and the belief was that most of it would go towards keeping Solder. With the 29-year old leaving, however, the Patriots are left with all that money and – figuratively speaking – nobody to invest it in. Some of the cap space will be used to bring other players on board and don’t be surprised if 2019 free agents like Trey Flowers or Brandin Cooks will see some of it as well.