Patriots' success in free agency contingent on Nate Solder's return

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With the official start to free agency closing in on Wednesday, the first domino to fall for the New England Patriots is one of their biggest: 6-foot-8, 325-pound starting left tackle Nate Solder.

Re-signing Solder has to be the team’s first priority, and it won’t come cheap. The top of the left tackle market is $13.5 million per season.

As ESPN NFL Nation reporter Kevin Seifert wrote in his top 100 free-agent rankings -- in which Solder earned the No. 7 spot -- “It’s rare for even a capable left tackle to reach free agency. Solder would be a popular target.”

Indeed, Solder is widely viewed as the best available offensive tackle, and then there’s a notable dropoff.

The Patriots seemed to project this scenario last offseason and in hopes of creating a fallback plan to protect themselves made two trades up in the draft to select offensive tackles Tony Garcia (third round) and Conor McDermott (sixth round). But Garcia missed all of last season on the non-football illness list, and McDermott was edged out for a roster spot by undrafted Cole Croston and then was claimed on waivers by Buffalo, where he spent all season.

Meanwhile, Solder’s top backups from last season -- Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle -- are set to become free agents as well. As for Garcia, it’s unclear how much the Patriots will be able to rely on him.

The result of all those factors is Solder, who turns 30 on April 12, finds himself in a position that few do when it comes to the Patriots: He has some leverage on his side, and if his hometown Broncos come calling with the idea that he could help solidify their offensive line -- as some in the media project they might do -- Solder might have heartstrings tugged in the process, too.

That’s why a successful 2018 Patriots free-agency period would start (and pretty much end) with Solder’s return. There’s no clear fallback plan that would represent an upgrade for who will protect the blind side of 41-year-old quarterback Tom Brady in 2018.

With about $22 million in salary-cap space, the Patriots know they’ll have to devote a sizable chunk of it if they are to bring Solder back. Making that happen, and then ensuring that clutch receiver Danny Amendola is also returning, would be the ideal start.

How realistic that is should come into focus soon.