ORLANDO, Fla. -- New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has had remarkable stability at left tackle over his 18-year tenure, but the position is currently in transition with Nate Solder signing a four-year, $62 million free-agent deal with the Giants.
Belichick addressed that situation, among other things, in his 27-minute meeting with reporters at Tuesday’s AFC coaches breakfast.
“Nate did a great job for us, and he has a great opportunity in New York. We wish him well,” Belichick said, noting that there is a lot of team-building to be done to determine who will ultimately replace him.
Belichick and the Patriots aren’t accustomed to finding themselves in this spot.
In 2000, Belichick had Patriots Hall of Famer Bruce Armstrong, followed by Matt Light (2001-2011) and then Solder (2012-2017), but now there’s a void at left tackle, and it’s arguably the biggest personnel question facing the club.
While the Patriots could potentially draft a long-term solution, like they did with Light and Solder, the current snapshot has a handful of options.
Six-year veteran LaAdrian Waddle, who was re-signed to a one-year deal, is one candidate. Belichick noted that Waddle has played both tackle spots since joining the team in December 2015. The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Waddle has played in 45 career regular-season games, with 28 starts.
Then there’s 2017 undrafted rookie Cole Croston of Iowa, who went through 107 practices last season, played 223 preseason snaps and was groomed behind the scenes while spending the entire year on the 53-man roster. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Croston was one of the surprise stories of 2017 training camp.
“He’s a developmental prospect. He has some position versatility,” Belichick said, referencing his work at guard as well. “He’s been in a good program, he’s worked hard and improved. Obviously he didn’t get any playing time during the regular season, very little [eight snaps at the end of games], but we’ll see how it goes this year. He did enough in training camp to make the roster.”
Free-agent signing Matt Tobin (6-foot-6, 303 pounds) has a similar story to Croston's, having walked on at Iowa before working his way into a starting role and then entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He signed a one-year deal with the Patriots for the veterans minimum two weeks ago and could compete at the left tackle spot.
“Iowa’s had a lot of players fall into that category at those positions. I haven’t coached Tobin, so we’ll see how it goes with him. But I’m glad we have him, glad we’re working with him. He has some experience [57 games played, 21 starts],” Belichick said.
One of the wild cards is 2017 third-round draft pick Antonio Garcia of Troy, who missed his entire rookie season with an illness. He might be the most athletic of the group but has a lot of ground to make up as he reportedly had blood clots in his lungs last year and lost considerable weight.
Asked on Sunday about his recovery, Belichick had noted that Garcia and other players rehabbing were working hard.
“When you come back from an injury, sometimes it’s a straight-line recovery. Sometimes things go faster than expected. Sometimes things go fast and then they slow down, and then they pick again,” he said. “It’s all part of a long process. All we can do is string a lot of good days together -- month after month, and when they’re ready, they’re ready. How that turns out, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, perhaps giving Belichick some comfort with the transition is that veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is back with the club.
“Great. One of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with. He does a great job. Absolutely, it’s a big positive to have him in our program,” Belichick said, confirming Scarnecchia’s return for 2018.
“And obviously Josh [McDaniels], both of them. There was some degree of uncertainty, but I’m very fortunate to have a good coaching staff. They’re two of the best I’ve ever worked with, so it’s great to have them.”