- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots host the Dolphins on Saturday, and it's a chance to revisit with rookie tight end Will Yeatman.
Those who follow the Patriots closely remember Yeatman as one of the surprise performers in 2011 training camp. A rookie free agent out of Maryland, he had outperformed fifth-round draft choice Lee Smith and looked like he had the inside track for a roster spot behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
But the Patriots waived him and he was claimed by the Dolphins. Inactive for most of the year, Yeatman made his NFL debut last Sunday in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have evolved over the course of the season when it comes to the third tight end spot. They opened the year with tight end Dan Gronkowski in the role. Then they used former practice squad offensive tackle Thomas Welch, before turning to rookie offensive tackle Nate Solder, who early in his college career had transitioned from tight end to tackle.
The 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder has played 121 snaps (including penalties) as an eligible receiver this season, giving the Patriots a bigger presence at the line of scrimmage on those plays.
One of the benefits of using an offensive tackle in that role is the matchups it creates. For example, a defense might counter with its base package, and if an offense knows there are only a few coverages the defense plays out of that, it can provide valuable pre-snap information for quarterback Tom Brady.
Also, sometimes going bigger and extending the line of scrimmage with an offensive tackle can help against strong edge rushers.
"I think we're able to do certain things to the defense that we wouldn't be able to do without that," coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
One of the other interesting parts of the Patriots using Solder in the role, especially when Solder starts the game at right tackle, is that it brings rookie Marcus Cannon on to the field as the right tackle. By NFL rule, Solder can't go from an eligible receiver back to tackle, so he has to miss a play before returning to his tackle role.
That has set up situations in recent weeks where Cannon, the fifth-round pick out of TCU, has been on the field blocking some top edge rushers.
Belichick's thoughts on Cannon in that role?
"He's continuing to progress," he answered, before adding, "in all honesty, in real terms, this is probably the start of the season for him. That being said, I think he's coming along, and he's out there every day and working hard. He's doing all the things we do offensively and takes the scout team reps. He's able to get work against our defense and that's good competition."