FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As Matt Light begins the next chapter in his life, in steps New England’s 2011 first-round draft pick, Nate Solder, to most likely fill the void.
"He’s done a great job for us," left guard Logan Mankins said of Solder. "Last year we were very impressed with Nate, and I think he’s only going to get better this year. He better get better, because that’s we want him to do and expect of him. He’s putting in the work right now to get on the road to getting better and being a very good tackle."
One challenge that Solder and the rest of the New England offensive line will face in 2012 is a division that invested (or re-invested) in its pass rush this offseason.
The Bills, who ranked near the bottom of the NFL with just 29 sacks in 2011, inked defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million deal in free agency, and followed that up by poaching former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson to play on the opposite side of Williams.
Meanwhile, the Jets weren’t going to let high-upside defensive end Quinton Coples slip any further than pick 16 in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. Coples adds skill to a defensive front that has proven to be productive in recent seasons, but one that lacks many proven pass rushers.
And although the Dolphins passed on Coples and the other available pass rushers with their first-round pick in favor of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the team did re-commit to standout linebacker Cameron Wake with a recent four-year, $49 million contract extension. The explosive 30-year old has recorded a sack in four of his six career games against New England, and ranks amongst the premier sack artists in the league.
The Patriots have been near the forefront of the league-wide shift towards a reliance on a prolific passing offense in recent years, but one antidote that seems reliable to counter their pass-heavy schemes has been an ability to generate pressure on Brady. No two examples of that stand out more than Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, during which the Giants used a bevy of disruptive defensive linemen to upset the rhythm of Brady.
The NFL is a copycat league, and it appears as though the AFC East, which has been playing a perpetual game of catch-up to the Patriots for much of the past decade, is committed to replicating the blueprint laid out by the Giants and others.
For Solder, that could mean many memorable bouts against players like Coples, Williams and Wake, much like those with Dwight Freeney and other previous AFC East foes that Light reflected on during his retirement ceremony on Monday.
With early season games against teams such as Denver, Baltimore and Buffalo that boast talented pass rushing defenses, it may not be long before Solder has his chance to prove he’s up for the full-time task.