When the Patriots were on the clock with the 17th pick in April’s NFL Draft, fans were clawing for a pass rusher. Most mock drafts called for the defensive end/outside linebacker tupe that could get to the quarterback. Running back Mark Ingram was on the board as well, and as the clock ticked for the Patriots, many thought perhaps he’d be a fit with the pick.
Then, in typical Patriots fashion, they took a player, and a position, that many did not forecast. Nate Solder, the 6’8″ 319 pound offensive tackle out of Colorado was the pick. At the time, Matt Light was a free agent, but hardly anyone believed the Pats would put the fate of the franchise Tom Brady on the pass protection of a rookie blindside blocker.
Soon after the lockout was lifted, the Patriots did indeed resign Light to a two year contract. With Sebastian Vollmer locked in at right tackle, it appeared Solder would be battling for a top backup role.
Vollmer’s back flared up and on opening night the rookie was thrust into the starting lineup at Miami. Solder drew a couple of penalties, but by most accounts people came away impressed with his ability to protect Tom Brady. Immediately Solder was proving his worth.
Sebastian Vollmer’s back issues have continued to flair up, and he has only appeared in six of the team’s first 12 games, with five starts (according to NFL.com). Nate Solder, on the other hand, has played in all 12 games, with nine starts.
Solder’s value has gone beyond his ability to fill in for the gimpy Vollmer. A handful of Solder’s starts and playing time has come as a sixth offensive lineman/tight end. A standout tight end in high school, Solder is no stranger to the position. Though he has not caught a pass (nor does he go out on routes), his value has been exemplified in this spot because of the lack of blocking top targets Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez do. Because Gronk and A-Hern are so lethal in the passing game, Solder’s blocking ability has been a major part of the offense.
As this team is currently constituted, Solder’s value is not at the position the team drafted him for. Assuming Light and Vollmer are healthy (and Vollmer currently is sidelined by a knee injury), Solder’s ability to line up next to them as an extra blocker is beneficial for all aspects of the offense.
Versatility is crucial to the Patriots. We saw that with the likes of Troy Brown years ago, and Julian Edelman recently. Helping the team in different ways is the Patriots way. This coupled with character that has gone unquestioned, have gone a long way in developing the young offensive lineman.