Let's start with the short term. As in, the immediate short term. Tomorrow night. Our boys suit up against the Detroit Lions in the "all important" third preseason game. This is the one where most teams like to give their starters the most burn. Have them experience a half time. Making adjustments and getting the energy levels back up after the break. This means we could see Tom Brady and Co. out there at least one series into the third quarter.
Nate Solder practiced on the Wednesday before our first preseason game against the Jaguars. Then he was held out of that game. He didn't practice with the team again until his return to the field this past Tuesday. He hasn't played in a preseason game yet. The reasons for his absence is undisclosed. I already hate that. And even though the long tenured left tackle got back in the action two days ago, he didn't travel with the team for the game tomorrow. That means Tommy's blind side will be protected by, at best, Cameron Fleming for probably two and a half quarters. LaAdrian Waddle is behind Fleming on the depth chart, but he got a concussion last Tuesday. He also returned to practice but I doubt he plays.
Fleming has shined in the past, there's no denying this. He started the regular season opener in place of Solder last year and more than held his own. The former 4th round pick is a solid run blocker but can struggle in pass protection. Not exactly great timing when Tom is supposed to get a lot of playing time. I swoon for the sharp jaw line and dark stubble of Jimmy Garoppolo as much as the next guy, but if someone's knee ligaments are going to get severed in half I'd much prefer them to be his.
As far as the regular season goes though, I feel good about Solder. As much as his unknown injury rattles me, he's been reasonably healthy over his career. In 2015 he only played 4 games before going down for the season with a torn right biceps. Other than that? 2011 - 16 games. 2012 - 16 games. 2013 - 15 games. 2014 - 16 games. 2016 - 15 games. That's what I'm talking about right there. The best ability is availability and Nate Solder has been available. He plays at a high level, and while at times we've all been screaming for his resignation, we've had a damn good return on the 17th overall pick in 2011. A pick, I might add, we received from the Richard Seymour trade, which people were livid about at the time.
That brings me to the long term. Two years ago I wanted to draft a left tackle of the future. Groom him for two years behind Solder, while also having him available as the first back up. Then insert him when Solder leaves as a free agent at the end of the 2017 season. Per usual, Bill Belichick ignored my phone calls in the war room and took Joe Thuney from NC State in the third round. Thuney had played both tackle spots in college, but also some guard. Based on his size and skill set, all the NFL scouts were projecting him at guard. I audibly boo'd the pick. I felt like a Jets fan. We just took Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason the year before, both guys I was/am pretty high on, to play guard. Why do we need another one??
Well, Thuney started 16 games as a rookie in our revamped oline, and we won a bowl, so I'll just show myself the door on that one. But going into the draft this year, I had the same plans. Take an experimental left tackle, groom him behind Solder, and then we are good to go. The Pats executed this perfectly with Solder himself back in the day. Matt Light gave us 10 years of faithful service. In 2011 he started at left tackle, and we slotted Solder in at right tackle. Light showed him the ropes as a rookie, and handed off the reigns when he retired. Solder's contract was actually up in 2015, but we rewarded him with a two year extension worth $20 mil, making him a Patriot through this season. Now is the time to draft his replacement! So with the 85th pick (two picks behind Derek Rivers) we selected Antonio Garcia, tackle out of Troy. Maybe not the guy I had eyes on, but it never is with Bill.
Again, I want to stress, I never wanted Garcia to see the field with any regularity this year. He's a developmental guy who should be learning from Solder so he can slide into the LT spot seamlessly next year. And on a rookie contract no less. That has been the true joy of having Solder these last 6 years. Left tackle can really crush a team's cap if it isn't handled correctly. How's Garcia working out so far? He's been out with an undisclosed injury the last two weeks and has been taking snaps with the third team. Yay. I hoped he might be the third tackle in those run heavy sets, but you have to think it's Fleming at this point. Garcia's roster spot is not in jeopardy or anything, but I hoped for more.
Which leads me to this "pump the breaks you are getting so far ahead of yourself" thought. What do you do next year? I fully expected Solder to be gone. I assume the Pats did as well since they drafted two tackles in the draft. But if you don't love Garcia (or Conor McDermott if he makes the team) do you still let Solder walk? The free agent pool at left tackle next year is horrendous. Solder is the cream of the crop. The top dog. Other big names were Donald Penn of the Raiders, who is currently holding out for an extension, La'el Collins of the Cowboys, who just got a 2 year extension, Alejandro Villanueva of the Steelers, who just got a 4 year extension, and Charles Leno Jr of the Bears, who just got a 4 year extension. Then consider that fact that Solder isn't our only free agent next year. So are Fleming and Waddle! With the generally weak class and the big-ish names already being extended, Fleming might legit be a top 3 tackle available this spring! What planet am I living on? Solder is about to be 30 years old. He will want, and get, a deal for 3 or 4 years at, I'm guessing, $13 mil per season with over half guaranteed. Is that something we want to pay as he ages up to 34 years old? A little while ago, I would have said no chance in hell. But I certainly don't want to pay slightly less than that for the next best free agent option if that is Cameron effing Fleming. So depending on how Bill feels about Garcia, maybe one more Solder extension isn't the worst thing in the world.