Friday, September 9, 2011
Ready or not, Solder's in spotlight
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If things went according to the New England Patriots' plan, first-round draft choice Nate Solder would have time to ease into the mix and build more strength. They didn't want to throw him right into the fire.
But it looks like that's what is going to happen.
Solder has a good chance of being in the starting lineup at right tackle when the Patriots visit the Dolphins on ESPN's Monday Night Football (7 p.m.), and his presence immediately would become one of the game's top storylines. All eyes will be on the Dolphins' edge pressure, led by Cameron Wake (14 sacks in 2010), second-year linebacker Koa Misi, and longtime Patriots nemesis Jason Taylor, and how Solder handles his first regular-season NFL assignment.
"I'm absolutely ready to go. Whatever situation I'm put in, it's because the coaches have the confidence for me to be in there, and I'm happy to be there," said Nate Solder.
The Patriots drafted Solder 17th overall to be their left tackle of the future, but the idea was to have a pass-the-torch situation with veteran Matt Light for at least one year. That's why the club awarded Light a two-year, $12 million free-agent contract including an up-front $6 million signing bonus.
That part of the plan is still on course, with Light expected to start at left tackle Monday. It's been the unexpected turn of events at right tackle, where second-team All-Pro Sebastian Vollmer has missed the last two weeks with a back injury, that has thrust Solder into the spotlight while potentially putting the Patriots in a dangerous spot should Light or Solder go down with injury. There are no other pure offensive tackles on the roster.
The 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder didn't want to tip anything off Friday, choosing his words carefully when asked about replacing Vollmer.
"I don't know exactly what's going to go on with that," he said. "I'm going to play wherever [I'm needed]."
Over the last two weeks, that has been on the right side, and the early returns have been positive. Unlike Light, who struggled early in his career when flipping sides, Solder is apparently a quick study.
"I think Nate is a pretty versatile guy," coach Bill Belichick said. "[He] seems very flexible, athletically, his footwork and so forth. He seems to be very comfortable wherever we put him."
By changing sides, Solder has to execute different techniques, with Belichick using one example of putting weight on the inside foot in pass protection or reach blocking. At left tackle, that would be the right foot. At right tackle, it's the left foot. Solder, who played solely left tackle at Colorado, explained it's the same thing with hand techniques.
As part of their standard planning, the Patriots worked the likeable Solder at both spots in training camp, mainly because coaches projected him as the third tackle on game day. So if there was an injury at either spot during a game, they wanted Solder ready.
The call now looks like it's coming sooner than expected, and Solder declared himself ready.
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"I'm absolutely ready to go," he said. "Whatever situation I'm put in, it's because the coaches have the confidence for me to be in there, and I'm happy to be there. ... Miami has a lot of good guys, a lot of good defensive linemen. It's a challenge for us."
In a reflection of how quickly depth can be thinned, offensive tackle was one of the Patriots' last worries just a few weeks ago. Things looked solid with Light, Vollmer, Solder and developmental tackle Steve Maneri.
But the Patriots waived Maneri last Monday to add to other areas of the roster, and the Chiefs claimed him. On the surface, the Patriots' move seemed curious given Vollmer's injury, and it has created a situation where the Patriots would probably have to call on guard Logan Mankins to move to tackle in the event of an injury Monday.
Mankins played tackle at Fresno State, and almost was called upon to do so again in the Patriots' 2005 playoff loss to the Broncos when starting right tackle Tom Ashworth couldn't go through warmups because of an illness. The Patriots surely hope it won't come to that Monday night.
If Vollmer is indeed out, the Patriots need Solder to shine earlier than anticipated. Solder didn't have the benefit of any offseason workouts because of the lockout, and he's had a lot thrown at him since reporting seven days into training camp. He's handled it well.
Now he's in position for an even bigger test on the Monday night stage.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.