Nate Solder's Regression Leaves His Future with New England Patriots in Doubt

James Christensen@@nepatriotsdraftContributor ISeptember 22, 2014

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 10:  Nate Solder #77 of the New England Patriots lines up against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on December 10, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

While he was drafted as a replacement for former left tackle Matt Light, Nate Solder is experiencing some of the darkest moments in his career in 2014.

Coming into the year, Solder's career was on a distinctly upward trajectory. Following a solid 2012 season—his first complete season as a starter—he was the highest-ranked player on the New England Patriots offense in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Solder was ranked ninth overall among tackles in the NFL.

In stark contrast, Solder was ranked outside of the top 50 tackles after Week 2. Giving up two sacks, one hit and four pressures in the first two weeks wasn't a good start, and Week 3 won't help his cause.

Oakland Raiders rookie Khalil Mack dominated Solder when rushing the passer—Solder held his own in the run game—and veteran Justin Tuck gave him fits as well. Solder's once-quick feet looked sluggish, and he looked tentative, wondering if he had help or not. Tom Brady had to have his head on a swivel with Solder on an island. 

With Solder's apparent regression in 2014—perhaps due in part to former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's retirement—his future in New England is anything but a sure thing.

Way back in April, the Patriots picked up the fifth-year option on Solder. If he is on the roster at the start of the 2015 league year, he will be guaranteed a whopping $7.438 million. Even though they've already picked up the option, that money is not a sure thing yet. Andrew Brandt from MMQB.com explains:

Thus, except in very limited cases, NFL teams can release 2011 first-rounders before the fifth-year option triggers in March with no remaining financial obligation for the option amount.

The “true guarantee” for the option—guaranteeing the player against release due to skill, injury and salary cap reasons—does not activate until the start of the 2015 league year in March. NFL teams now have 10 more months of contract control and negotiating leverage with very little risk.

If New England feels that Solder isn't worth that amount of money and they can't come to a more financially suitable extension, it isn't out of the question that it could release him.

Devin McCourty, Darrelle Revis, Stephen Gostkowski, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are just a few impending free agents that Bill Belichick may want to re-sign. Spending $7 million on the 2014 version of Solder just doesn't seem like good business.

Belichick, however, isn't going to release Solder unless he has someone in mind to replace him. Luckily, the 2015 NFL draft class is loaded with talented tackles.

This year's OT class is special. Schreff, Ogbuehi, Peat, Collins all potential top 10-12 selections. If you need an OT this is year to get 1

— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) September 19, 2014

While the top-tier talent would likely be gone by the time the Patriots are picking, New England has enough draft capital in 2015 to make a trade into the top half of the first round. You can do a lot worse than pick a tough, physical left tackle like Iowa's Brandon Scherff. He would have the technique and experience to contribute as a rookie.

Starting over with a new left tackle isn't what Brady, Belichick and the rest of the Patriots offense wants, however. They just want Solder to flip the switch back to "2013 mode" and play lights-out.

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