In exactly one week from today, the NFL's free agency window officially opens. For the New England Patriots, is projects to be a busy period as some core members of the team in all three phases are about to hit the open market. Among them are starting left tackle Nate Solder and starting running back Dion Lewis – and NBC Sports Boston's Mike Giardi recently shared updates on both of them.
Regarding Solder, Giardi notes that the veteran does not appear to be the “slam dunk” to return he was originally thought to be:
The more people I talk to, the more I’m hearing that Solder is far from a slam dunk to return to Foxboro. Yes, I’m moderately surprised but there’s a lot of money out there and he’s the best LT in a lean market at the spot in free agency
As Giardi notes, Solder clearly is the best tackle to hit the market. Therefore, the 29-year old is projected to attract multiple suitors who in turn are projected to drive the price up – potentially to a point at which the Patriots are no longer comfortable to invest in their long-time starter. Still, for two reasons, it would be a surprise if this actually happened and Solder left New England.
For one, the Patriots have no clear succession plan at the left tackle spot which makes Solder the team's priority free agent: Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon and last year's third round pick Tony Garcia are both coming off significant stints on reserve lists, while neither Cameron Fleming nor LaAdrian Waddle – both free agents as well – have proven themselves able to take over as Tom Brady's blindside protector.
The second reason is Solder's family: His son Hudson is still undergoing cancer treatments in Boston and it would not be a surprise to see the former first round draft pick opt to keep his family where it is currently located. Whether or not the combination of reasons will be enough to keep Solder around – despite potentially receiving higher offers from other teams – remains to be seen.
Ultimately, though, it not be a surprise to see him return after testing the free agency waters.
As noted above, Giardi also has a report on unrestricted free agent running back Dion Lewis – one that does also not sound particularly encouraging:
Multiple sources think it’s a longshot that Dion Lewis remains a Patriot. Expected contractual demands are a problem and those sources say Lewis remains disappointed by his usage both early in the season and again in the Super Bowl.
Let's break this down one by one. With players not yet permitted to talk to other teams, the contractual demands Giardi mentions are likely just a target price by Lewis' camp in relation to how the Patriots value him. This outlook could very well change once other franchises enter the picture next week and add more context as to how the market sees the 27-year old's worth (especially when compared to a deep running back draft class).
Lewis' usage is a different story: He was used as a rotational option early through the season and saw his playing time and touches increase after the Patriots' mini-bye following their week five Thursday night game. Lewis, who also served as the team's primary kickoff returner, never touched the ball fewer than 10 times between week six and the AFC championship game – a number that went down to nine touches during the Super Bowl.
Of course, with the way the Patriots have been using their running backs in the past it is no surprise to see Lewis' numbers fluctuate. Especially when it comes to shootouts like the Super Bowl or New England's first quarter of 2017 games this was to be expected; third down/two-minute running back James White saw an increase in snaps during obvious pass-first games.
If his usage is indeed an issue for Lewis, seeing him return to the Patriots looks unrealistic. New England won't change its positional rotation just to please the number one running back.