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Tackle’s non-answer, team’s moves could add up to an early exit

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Nate Solder (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH — The question was direct, but quick and easy to dismiss if he chose to. So perhaps it spoke volumes that Nate Solder avoided it altogether.

“There have been rumblings about this, so I’ll just ask you: Have you contemplated retirement?” I asked Solder after practice on Thursday.

If he hasn’t, a quick, “Nah, I’m just looking forward to this season," would have sufficed.

Instead, Solder gave an answer that was akin to a soldier stating name, rank and serial number.

“My focus right now is to do the best I can on this field and be prepared to do whatever this team needs me to do,” he said.

That’s definitely not a "yes." But also, a long way from a "no."

The whole situation, which is underscored by the fact that 2017 is the final year of his current contract, is strange.

Ask anyone who’s been around the team and they’ll tell you Solder is one of the finest human beings on the team. It’s not only because he’s always available and accountable (even after a rocky Super Bowl), but because he’s personable and genuinely a nice person. You’ll see him out and about with his wife, Lexi, and he’ll come up and say hi and ask how the family is.

Solder, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2011, is exactly the type of player who would play ball with the team on a contract extension by giving them a discount in exchange for stability. Money’s not a motivating factor for him, and he likes to be close to the doctors that have cared for his son Hudson as he battles Wilms tumor, a cancer of the kidneys.

That happened in 2015, when he signed a two-year extension that helped secure him for life ($20 million guaranteed), but also helped the team in the long run -- Solder would have been much more expensive had he reached free agency.

This time around, there have been no rumblings about a contract extension. Perhaps that’s simply because the team could be ready to move on, and there's justification for that.

Solder had the look of a franchise left tackle entering the 2014 season, but he wasn’t the same ascending player during it. After the season, Solder disclosed that he had undergone treatment for testicular cancer, and that explained a lot. After another average season in ’15, Solder was back to being a very good player in '16. That probably had a lot to do with the return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but it still happened. But so, too, did the Super Bowl, when Solder was devoured by Old Man Dwight Freeney, among others. By the end of the game, Solder had given up one sack, two hits and nine hurries. And it would have been worse had the entire Falcons line not been gassed after three quarters.

So maybe Bill Belichick, who always seems to use the team’s final postseason game (win or lose) as 50 percent of a player’s grade (or more), saw Solder's film against a declining player and decided it was time to start looking for a future left tackle.

Not only did the Patriots select a potential left tackle in the draft in Troy’s Antonio Garcia (6-foot-6, 302 pounds), they gave up a third-round pick (96) and fourth-rounder (124) to move up 11 spots to get him. In the seventh round, the Patriots traded up again and picked another tackle, Conor McDermott (6-foot-8).

So, now, the Patriots aren’t tied to Solder being here beyond this season. Perhaps that’s strictly a football decision. Perhaps there’s something else at play.

If there is a player on the Patriots who would retire early from the NFL, it's Solder. Not only did he have his own issues with cancer, but Hudson’s battle has made Solder look at each day as a gift. Hudson looked terrific, by the way, on the field after practice, as he played with his father and tried to put on his helmet. Solder couldn’t stop smiling as he talked about his family vacation in Rhode Island before camp. “We were playing outside the whole time,” he said. “It was great.”

Solder, who was an outstanding student at Colorado where he graduated with a biology degree and a 3.52 grade point average, is also very smart. He would be the kind of player who would read all the studies on CTE, including the latest damaging report, and make as quick an exit from the NFL as possible. Solder would also clue the Patriots in if he was having those thoughts, so they could prepare and draft his possible replacements.

Maybe Solder and the team are working on an extension. Maybe Solder has no plans to stop playing anytime soon. Or, perhaps, Solder is giving his all for one more season before devoting all his time to his young family, which now includes daughter Charlie, and putting his biology degree to use.

But in the end, his offbeat answer regarding retirement only leaves us with more questions about his future.