By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Make no mistake about it: Nate Solder signing with the Giants is a loss for the New England Patriots.
While Solder has not necessarily been a top-five — or even at times a top-10 — left tackle in the NFL during his seven-year NFL career, he has been a reliable and consistent presence at one of the most important positions on the field. Replacing him won’t be a cinch.
But that doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t do it. It does seem as though the team was preparing for another team — in this case, the New York Giants — to swoop in and make a Godfather offer to the soon-to-be-30-year-old. Here’s a look at whom the Patriots might tab to fill the shoes of Nate Solder without having to explore deep into the free-agent field.
ON THE ROSTER
In 2016, Cannon established himself as the best right tackle in the NFL. Considering he has experience playing left tackle for the Patriots, and considering he’s making a healthy salary around $4.5 million, Cannon figures to be the prime candidate to take the spot.
Cannon will turn 30 this offseason, and he’s coming off an ankle injury that limited him to just seven games in 2017. His career has not always been as steady as it was in 2016, so he shouldn’t be considered a sure thing in filling in for Solder. But he’s got the most experience, and if he can slide over, it might be easier for the Patriots to fill in a gap at right tackle instead of on the left side.
Cole Croston may not exactly be a well-known name in the New England region and beyond, but taking a young, unpolished player and thrusting him into a key role in year two sounds like it would fit right in with the Bill Belichick style of roster building.
Croston, 24, signed as an undrafted free agent last season and made the team out of training camp over Conor McDermott, on whom the Patriots spent a sixth-round pick to acquire. Though Croston barely sniffed the field at all in game action, the Patriots kept him on their 53-man roster all year long, unwilling to risk losing him to waivers by sending him to the practice squad.
At 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, Croston has the size to play tackle in the NFL, and he has a year of experience in learning the Patriots’ system under Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Dante Scarnecchia. Come the time for spring practice, Croston could be in excellent position to really compete for a starting job — or at least a rotational spot — on the offensive line.
The Patriots made very few picks in the 2017 draft, but the tackle out of Troy was near the top of the team’s wish list. Drafted 85th overall — just two spots behind New England’s top pick, Derek Rivers — Garcia was unable to play at all in his rookie season due to blood clots in his lungs. That ailment caused him to lose more than 40 pounds. Considering one of the knocks on Garcia as a draft prospect was a concern about his ability to add and keep weight, that figures to be a concern going forward.
But if Garcia can regain that weight and strength, the 6-foot-6 tackle figures to be in the mix for a role on the team. As a mid-third-round pick, he’s almost guaranteed to get every last shot at competing for a role.
Cameron Fleming/LaAdrian Waddle
Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle may have been among the happiest people to see Solder get a $60 million contract — not just because they were happy for a now-former teammate, but because the market for tackle had been set at a ridiculously high price.
It remains to be seen, though, whether Fleming or Waddle will be able to cash in with a significant contract. Neither was a full-time player in 2017, with Waddle taking 29 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps and Fleming being a tick higher at 32 percent.
From a Patriots perspective, it might be ideal to sign at least one of these two players to a moderate deal — Fleming made under $2 million last year, and Waddle made about $1 million — and make them a full-time right tackle, with Cannon making the move to the left side. It’s worth noting that both Fleming and Waddle do have experience — albeit limited experience — at left tackle for New England.
Fleming might be the Patriots’ top choice to re-sign, as the team did spend a fourth-round pick on him in 2014. But Waddle may come cheaper.