FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – No NFL team has all of its questions answered at this point, and for the New England Patriots, the top one is, “How do they fill the void with starting left tackle Nate Solder departing in free agency?”
Sparked by a suggestion from Twitter follower @illegalact, let’s break down some options in three categories:
Cole Croston: Because he entered the NFL with the team as an undrafted free agent from Iowa, he has flown under the radar a bit. Yet the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Croston outplayed 2017 sixth-round draft choice Conor McDermott last preseason/training camp in the eyes of coaches, so this is also a case where perception hasn’t caught up to reality. Croston was kept on the 53-man roster for all of 2017, and his preseason tape at left tackle shows some promise.
Matt Tobin: The 6-foot-6, 303-pound Tobin, also an Iowa alum, was the Seahawks’ swing tackle last season and has 21 career starts, making him the most experienced option at this time unless the team felt moving flipping right tackle Marcus Cannon was the best choice for the team.
Antonio Garcia: The Patriots thought highly of the 6-foot-7, 302-pound Garcia in last year’s draft, trading a third-round pick (96) and fourth-rounder (126) to move up 11 spots in the third round to select Garcia No. 85 overall. So the club obviously sees some desirable traits to work with, but the biggest issue for Garcia is his health. He missed his entire rookie season after reportedly developing blood clots in his lungs, and he needs to gain weight back. Garcia wrote on Instagram on Tuesday that he was cleared to play.
Marcus Cannon: A top-flight right tackle, Cannon’s career elevated to a higher level once the Patriots decided to lock him in on the right side. When Cannon took reps at left tackle, or even guard, it seemed to limit his ceiling. So moving him to the left side comes with risk as it could hurt the Patriots in two spots.
Orlando Brown (Oklahoma): A son of the late Orlando “Zeus” Brown, who played for Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns (1993-95), his poor testing results at the combine made some headlines. He has been considered a first-round prospect, in part because of his rare physical makeup – he’s 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, with long arms.
Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame): The 6-foot-8, 312-pound McGlinchey is expected to be picked in the first round and is viewed by some as the best offensive tackle in the draft. His background as a tight end reflects his good athleticism, which fits the profile the Patriots generally look for in their left tackles.
Kolton Miller (UCLA): At 6-foot-9 and 310 pounds, he is one of the tallest prospects in the draft. Some have compared his physical makeup to Solder's. He tested well at the combine, which could help improve his draft stock.
Brian O’Neill (Pittsburgh): A tight end who transitioned to tackle, the 6-foot-7, 305-pound O’Neill is considered a good athlete (a 4.82 time in the 40 at his size is impressive), has long arms, and projects to fit in a zone-type blocking scheme like the Patriots’ run.
Connor Williams (Texas): Starting at left tackle as a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Williams enters the NFL draft after his junior season that was shortened by a knee injury. Some viewed him as a top-10 pick entering last season, but now he could slide.
LaAdrian Waddle: Having first joined the Patriots in December 2015, he has played in 15 regular-season games (four starts). The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Waddle visited with the Cowboys on Monday, and he was back at Gillette Stadium late last week, presumably for a physical.
Cameron Fleming: The 2014 fourth-round draft choice from Stanford has been praised by Belichick for coming through whenever the Patriots called on him, as he has played in 47 career regular-season games, with 20 starts. He’s a powerful run-blocker on the edge and is probably a better fit on the right side, but the Patriots have won with him on the left side.