The New England Patriots have had the good fortune of having only two left tackles in front of quarterback Tom Brady since rookie second round draft pick Matt Light took over the starting role in 2001. That was the same time the Patriots began their current run of success under head coach Bill Belichick. After manning the position for over a decade, Light turned the reins over to 2011 first round draft pick Nate Solder in 2012. Since then, Solder has quietly become a rock on the offensive line anchoring the left side with veteran guard Logan Mankins.
In 2013 Nate Solder continued to impress as he had his best season as a Patriot to date. Often dominant in the role at left tackle, he was slowed by concussions as he missed a game and a half at the end of the season. ProFootballFocus.com rated him as the ninth best tackle in 2013 with their proprietary rating system and FootballOutsiders.com had him anchoring the top run blocking offensive line and ninth best pass blocking offensive line in the NFL last year.
Solder teamed with right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to give the Patriots a dynamic duo at the offensive tackle positions in 2012 and the first half of 2013. Vollmer was a surprise second round pick in 2009 (actually New England’s fourth second round pick of that season) who had the draft experts scrambling to find something to say about this unknown German national from Houston who was expected to be a late round draft pick. Last off-season the Patriots re-signed the veteran tackle to a four year deal for $17 million plus incentives. Vollmer was signed to the inexpensive deal due to injury issues in 2011 driving down his price tag.
Last season both Vollmer and Solder were the most effective duo of tackles until Week 8 when Vollmer broke his right leg in a gruesome injury that put him out of action for the year. Fortunately, New England had 2011 fifth round draft pick Marcus Cannon waiting in the wings to pick up the slack. The TCU alumni was initially on the reserve/non-football injury list to start his NFL career due to recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After several months of chemotherapy, he regained strength and returned to the team. Providing depth at both guard and tackle, Cannon stepped in for the injured Vollmer in Week 9 and acquitted himself well at right tackle.
While Cannon was not immune from the injury bug, his role at right tackle was filled in Weeks 12, 13 and 14 by veteran tackle Will Svitek. Svitek was brought in via free agency as the swing tackle after earning a role with Atlanta. Svitek suffered with injuries from training camp onward and was only available for a short period of time during the season. Svitek is a free agent and needs to be replaced, although he could still return on a one-year deal.
Marcus Cannon is likely to move inside to guard as current right guard Dan Connolly has not played up to his contract the past two seasons and is a likely candidate to be released. The only other tackles on the roster are practice squad players R.J. Mattes, an undrafted free agent from North Carolina State, and Jordan Devey, an older developmental project who was released by Baltimore and landed on the practice squad in Foxboro.
While a high draft pick at tackle is unlikely with so many other needs, the Patriots may pick up a prospect later in the draft. Either re-signing Will Svitek or finding another veteran tackle in free agency to fill the void. With the injuries the team faced at tackle this past season, the Patriots need to have at least two solid back-ups ready to go at all times. It will not be a big name in free agency like Eugene Monroe, Branden Albert, Jared Veldheer, Rodger Saffold, and Michael Oher. Instead, look for a one or two year deal for a veteran like Zach Strief who may leave New Orleans or Cincinnati’s Anthony Collins who has played both left and right tackle.
The Patriots have a solid foundation at tackle with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. The need for depth is evident in the injury issues of last season with Solder’s concussion and Vollmer’s broken leg. There may be a surprise practice squad player who makes the jump, but quality depth must be added this off-season so that the Patriots can keep quarterback Tom Brady upright in 2014.