FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots took Nate Solder with the 17th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, he was dubbed the left tackle of the future. What perhaps even Solder didn't know at the time was that he was also the right tackle of the right now.
With Sebastian Vollmer limited to one game this season due to a lingering back injury, Solder stepped into an immediate starting role on an overhauled right side of the line. He has started five of six games for the Patriots and more than held his own while logging 400 snaps through the first six weeks of his rookie campaign.
According to offensive snap totals logged by analytical site Pro Football Focus, Solder has found himself in pass protection on 235 total plays and allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and nine total quarterback pressures. By comparison, veteran left tackle Matt Light, the man he's pegged to replace down the line, has allowed 11 pressures, three hits, and three sacks over 269 plays in pass protection.
Big things were expected from the 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder, but his immediate impact makes him the early star of a 2011 draft class that has produced mixed results through the first six weeks of the season.
The Patriots enter the bye week with nearly a fifth of their total team comprised by rookies. There's 13 total among the 73 players attached to New England's roster, including reserve lists.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick sat down with his rookies Wednesday to discuss the team's expectations as the first-year players -- locked into the routine of the NFL season ever since the lockout lifted -- prepare for their first dose of extended freedom with the next five days off.
With almost three months of football activity behind them, including a total of 10 games (four preseason, six regular season), the bye affords us a prime opportunity to reflect on the production of the Class of 2011 thus far. We invite you to share your thoughts on each as well:
Nate Solder, OT, first round (17th overall)
Ras-I Dowling, CB, second round (33rd overall)
Shane Vereen, RB, second round (56th overall)
Stevan Ridley, RB, third round (73rd overall)
Ryan Mallett, QB, third round (74th overall)
The Patriots have been content to roll with two quarterbacks in the past, but Mallett's potential has the team carrying a third signal-caller this season. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound quarterback completed 36 of 63 passes for 357 yards and a touchdown during the preseason. He's unlikely to surge past Brian Hoyer as the team's No. 2 quarterback this season, but there's a very good chance he could have a larger role on this team -- or somewhere else, if the Patriots decide to flip a backup for a draft pick -- down the road.
Marcus Cannon, OL, fifth round (138th overall)
Considered one of the top offensive line prospects coming out of TCU, Cannon's draft stock dipped after his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It didn't scare off the Patriots, who now carry the 6-foot-5, 358-pound tackle on the non-football injury/reserve list as he recovers (his final chemotherapy treatment was in July). Asked this week about what the team saw in Cannon during the scouting process, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said: "I mean program-wise, I think he's exemplary. I think anybody you talk to down there will tell you his work ethic, his intelligence, conditioning -- he really does everything that he's asked to do and he's a smart guy. He's had experience at both tackles. I don't think there's any reason why he couldn't play guard, just on the surface. I'm not saying he can, but I don't see any reason to say he couldn't, let's put it that way. He has position versatility, he's a smart guy, he has good size, runs well. High level of competition, he's performed well. [He has] a lot of things going for him." If and when able to return to action, Cannon could stabilize an offensive line thin on overall depth.
Markell Carter, LB, sixth round (194th overall)
Carter was among the team's final cuts when it originally trimmed down to 53 players before the start of the season, but he landed on the practice squad. He has earned back-to-back black jerseys as one of the team's practice standouts of the week (including this past week, suggesting he might have spent time as Dallas' DeMarcus Ware during scout team work). Carter had a less-than-stellar preseason, but the strong practice efforts are an encouraging sign in his development.
Jeff Tarpinian, LB, undrafted
The other rookies: After a revolving door at long snapper for much of the preseason, rookie Danny Aiken, who spent time with Buffalo after being undrafted out of Virginia, won the job. In addition to Carter, the practice squad features three other rookies, including defensive end Alex Silvestro, and cornerbacks Josh Victorian and Sterling Moore. Defensive end Christian Cox and offensive lineman Kyle Hix are both on injured reserve after joining the team as undrafted free agents.
The departed: The Patriots cut ties with two rookies before the season. Tight end Lee Smith, a fifth-round selection out of Marshall, was among the team's final cuts and was swooped up by the Buffalo Bills, while cornerback Malcolm Williams, a seventh-round pick out of TCU, remains a free agent after being cut by the team.
Don't forget about next year's picks: While you can certainly make the case that it's a byproduct of all the swaps in recent years, the Patriots still have two high picks in the 2012 draft thanks to trades made during the 2011 draft.
The Patriots have New Orleans' first-round pick after trading away pick No. 28 this year (New England parlayed that into Vereen at No. 56 and the future pick). The Patriots also have a second-round pick from Oakland after sending out a third- and fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.