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Bedard: Patriots shouldn’t fear parting with Nate Solder and other free agent thoughts

(USAToday Sports)

Note: This was written before reports said Nate Solder agreed to terms with the Giants, but still holds.

From all sides of Patriots media coverage this offseason, we've heard one drumbeat over and over as free agency grew closer:

New England has to make re-signing left tackle Nate Solder its No. 1 priority. The key to success this offseason is re-signing Solder. The Patriots have to re-sign Solder.

The question I've been asking myself is: Why is that exactly?

Should the Patriots make an honest attempt to re-sign Solder? Yes. Would it be nice if he returns? Yes. Does he deserve to return? Yes.

But in no way does anything in the Patriots' universe hinge — even before Solder reportedly agreed to a contract with the Giants on Wednesday — on Solder lining up at left tackle for the Patriots next season.

Why?

Solder has never been an elite pass-blocking tackle. He's been an average-to-good pass blocker, but his run blocking boosts him. He's incredibly powerful on the run when he's healthy.

But as far as pass blocking, he just finished a season where he allowed 74 total quarterback pressures — more than double the next-highest player (Shaq Mason, 33). Solder ranked 44th in pass-blocking efficiency among all tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The fact of the matter is the Patriots are an elite left tackle away from being one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Mason, David Andrews and Joe Thuney are coming off very good seasons. Marcus Cannon, when healthy, is among the best at right tackle.

Yes, other teams want Solder because the free-agent class of players who have a chance to left tackle is putrid. And Solder and his agent did well to place him in this position where the Patriots couldn't use the franchise tag on Solder.

But that doesn't mean the Patriots should pay through the nose for a player who is coming off one of his worst seasons with the Patriots (yes, he improved as the season went along).

The writing was on the wall when the Patriots drafted two tackles last year, including Antonio Garcia in the third round. Health issues have clouded his future, but that doesn't mean the Patriots should deviate from their plan.

What would the Patriots do if they lost Solder? They would certainly eye a tackle in the draft and there are candidates who can play right away. Matt Light was a second-round pick. Yes, it's become more challenging with the state of college football to find surefire left tackles (part of the reason why Solder is so valuable right now). But you can still find them. The Eagles just won a Super Bowl with 2016 fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle. Cannon has played effectively there in the past. LaAdrian Waddle could be viable. The Patriots picked Garcia for a reason, and perhaps he'll be ready to compete coming July. Some veterans may become available via cuts after the draft.

And there may be some players available via trade. I'd rather trade a second-round pick to the Eagles for Jason Peters (making about $7 million each the next two seasons) — who would be a huge upgrade if healthy and by you time to find the next left tackle — than pay Solder double.

Other thoughts:

  • Now that Malcolm Butler has finally been given his fair market value by the Titans (good for him), the question now is, would the Patriots have been better off not driving hard for a discount and locking up Butler at $10 million per season instead of giving Stephon Gilmore $13 million (and ticking Butler off, which became a season-long issue and may have factored into the Super Bowl loss)? Both players' careers will be compared from here on out.
  • One thing to keep in mind: now that Butler, Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola (perhaps Solder) have signed big deals elsewhere, there's even more incentive for the Patriots to acquire players via trade or those released (Ndamukong Suh) by their former teams. The Patriots are setting up themselves to recoup multiple compensatory picks next year if they don't sign any free agents that offset those players. Players that are free agents via release don't factor in.
  • Lewis was great when healthy here, but that was far too infrequent for the Patriots to offer him a similar contract to what the Titans offered him. Lewis has not proven himself to be durable, as he played 35 percent of snaps and averaged 13 touches per game last season. That was not an accident. The Patriots know better than anybody what Lewis is capable of from a health perspective.
  • The same thing goes for Amendola. Clutch, tough and valuable, but the Patriots need to get younger at a lot of spots.