Against the New Orleans Saints, the New England Patriots offensive line looked porous to open up the preseason. While the run blocking wasn’t poor, the pass protection left a lot to be desired, with the efforts of young tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon being of concern.
With Sebastian Vollmer still out with an ankle injury, Cannon is the current starter at right tackle. Vollmer was one of the best and most underrated tackles in the league in 2009 and 2010, but he had a slight downturn in performance last season. He’s still a solid RT overall, so I’m not overly concerned with Cannon’s struggles against the Saints. Even though he was picked last year, Cannon received just limited action last season and is now transitioning to being a full-time tackle in the league. He has a lot of talent and was a steal with the fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Vollmer himself should be back very soon, and it will be crucial to see how he is affected by the ankle injury. He also suffered from a back injury, but that’s of lesser concern for the 28-year-old. Cannon was limited last season due to cancer treatments, and he is a quality backup who isn’t ready to make the jump as a starter; that showed in the opener.
The more concerning performance at tackle was Nate Solder’s play at left tackle. While the hyper-athletic 6’8″, 320 pound Colorado product performed well as a run blocker against the Saints, his pass blocking left much to be desired. He was culpable for a critical strip-sack by Will Smith on Tom Brady, and he also had a couple of holding penalties that hurt the team. He was beat repeatedly, and that sack by Smith was clearly the defining moment of his play.
Solder, a former tight end with the CU Buffs, has the most upside of any offensive line recruit in the 2011 draft class. There is no doubt that he is still classified as a project player, and he had a solid season for a rookie tackle pegged as a project OL. Solder did struggle against the pass rush as a rookie, but that was to be expected. However, the strong tackle more than held his own as a run blocker. He will be better in year two, and he will make strides in pass protection as the year goes on. Solder will be a weak link in pass protection at left tackle, but he will get stronger.
On the inside, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters are still out, so there should be little concern for the Patriots when they are both back. Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen are two solid centers, while Mankins is one of the best players in the league and Waters one of the best pass protectors in the league. Guys like Ryan Wendell have held up on their own as backups as well.
The interior of the Patriots offensive line should be good, and the run blocking as a whole should be solid. The problem is the pass protection from the two young tackles. Nate Solder won’t be terrible, but he will likely be subpar in that aspect. A lot rests on Vollmer’s health, as he has become an injury-prone player. If the injury affects him enough, then the Patriots could have a problem at right tackle if Marcus Cannon can’t get things down quick enough and continues to struggle. He has talent, but he didn’t have the best of days against the Saints. I’m not concerned about the offensive line just yet, with the exception of the right tackle position.