Pay the Man: a case for extending Nate Solder's contract this spring
Solder's ability to match up with top pass rushers, such as Jared Allen back in 2014, makes him critical to the Pats offense
As the euphoria of the Patriots fifth Super Bowl title slowly begins to fade, Patriots fans are beginning to revert back to their typical worrisome offseason selves. As you know by now, the 2016 championship team was loaded with impending free agents, with many of them key contributors. Fans are already beginning to fret over the possibility of losing the likes of Dont'a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan and even restricted free agent Malcolm Butler.
One name you don't hear much about right now is Nate Solder. That's because the Patriots starting left tackle is under contract next season. He's not going anywhere...until next offseason, when he's scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency.
While it may not be on most fans' radar, Solder's impending free agency is surely on the mind of the Patriots front office. If he's allowed to play out the final year of his contract, the Patriots will find themselves in a dillema next spring. They'll either have to franchise tag him (the franchise tag for linemen is projected at $14.37 million this year and will rise with the cap next offseason), sign him to a BIG money long-term contract, or lose him for nothing but a compensatory 2019 pick, leaving Tom Brady's blindside extremely vulnerable in the process.
That's why it should be a major offseason priority for the Patriots to extend Solder's contract this offseason. Just as they did prior to the 2015 season, extending Solder before his deal expires will help to control his cap costs while also giving the player an immediate pay day and some extra security should injury strike at an inopportune time.
Lets go back and look at that prior contract extension Solder signed just before the start of the 2015 season. At the time, Solder was set to play out 2015 under the fifth year option of his rookie contract before hitting free agency the following offseason. Had they allowed him to play out that year, he would've hit the free agent market at age 28 with a track record of success at one of the league's highest paying and most difficult roles to fill: left tackle. He would have been one of the most sought after free agents in the league, even coming off of the torn biceps he suffered during that 2015 season, and likely would have received his big pay day elsewhere.
Instead, the Patriots snuck it with a great move, signing him to an extension that tacked two additional years onto his existing contract. Doing so was a win-win for the team and player. Solder got nearly $20 million in guaranteed money just by signing, in the form of a $12.5 million signing bonus and a fully guaranteed base salary of $6 million in 2016. In return, the Patriots kept Solder through this past season and next year at cap charges of $10.6 and $11.1 million. Expensive, yes, but certainly less than it would have cost to keep him had they let him reach the open market. They also actually lowered his 2015 cap charge in the process by spreading out the cap charges for his bonus money over those additional two years.
The same basic principles apply now. Extending Solder now will certainly cost less than signing him to a new deal against competing offers on the open market a year from now. It will also require less of a commitment years-wise, which is an important factor given that Solder will be about to turn 30 when he's scheduled to hit the market. Signing him to a multi-year deal at age 30 would be a risky proposition, as you'd be tying up significant cap for a player who would be 33 or 34 by the end of the deal. By that point, you'd likely have significant cap tied up in a declining player.
Instead, the Patriots should attempt to sign Solder to an extension tacking on an additional two-to-three years onto his current deal. Doing so would add significant cap charges to the Patriots cap in 2018 and 2019, but would be good value in retaining Solder through the end of his prime, while he's still a good bet to be effective in protecting Brady's blindside. Somewhere between $10 and $12 million per season should be a reasonable price for Solder, who is miles better than the alternative options out there at left tackle.
Additional motivation to get ahead of things and extend Solder comes from getting ahead of the left tackle market. The top two left tackles set to hit the market this offseason are Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth and Jacksonville's Kelvin Beachem, with each coming with concerns (age with Whitworth, injury with Beachem) that will keep them from significantly altering the left tackle market. However, the 2018 offseason could see both Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee's Taylor Lewan hit the market fresh off of their rookie contracts, with both likely to cash in on mega-deals that could change the constantly rising price of premier talent at the position. Currently, Washington's Trent Williams and New Orleans' Terron Armstead are the only left tackles averaging $13 million per year on their current deals. Matthews and Lewan could conceivably double that total within the next year.
Finally, extending Solder now would actually help the Patriots retain some of the defensive talent set to hit the market this offseason. As things currently stand, Solder is on the books for an $11.1 million cap charge this coming season, a number trumped only by Tom Brady. Spreading out his bonus money (his signing bonus alone costs $4.1 million against the cap this year) over an additional two or three years would give the team moderate cap relief this offseason, giving them a few more bucks to spend on keeping some of their impending free agents.
Solder has been a big part of the Patriots success since his ascension to the starting left tackle role in 2012, yet still feels under-appreciated due to the expectations that came with being the draft pick that was acquired in return for Richard Seymour. While he's never approached being the best left tackle in the league, he's consistently been one of the better ones throughout his career, making him a valuable and necessary piece to an offense that is one of the league's best year after year. I'm sure extending Solder this offseason would cause some fans and media members to grumble that he's "not worth the money", but he certainly is in my opinion given his position, the market and, most importantly, the alternatives out there. The risk of slightly overpaying Solder clearly outweighs the likely reward, and the odds suggest that extending him now would actually result in far better value than waiting until his contract expires next spring.
In other words, pay the man. And do it in a hurry. We've got plenty of other guys to pay as well.