Feb 2, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks during the Super Bowl XLIX-Winning Head Coach and MVP Press Conference at Media Center-Press Conference Room B. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots front office has circled March 10 on their calendar as their attention moves from their Super Bowl Championship season which culminated in a dramatic 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks and onto the hard decisions of the offseason. Their extended post-season run has created an abbreviated break time and the front office has a busy next few weeks to get into their post-season roster building.
Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight endRob Gronkowski
(87) celebrates with teammatesTom Brady
(12) ,James Develin
(46) andNate Solder
(77) after scoring a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Over the next few weeks the regional draft combines begin and those are capped off by the national NFL combine starting on February 17. Internal free agents take priority as New England has a deadline of March 2 as far as applying the franchise tag to players who cannot work out a long-term deal and whom the team desires to keep off the market. Free agency begins on March 7 with teams able to negotiate with unrestricted free agents and on March 10 at 4 PM the league year begins and players begin to officially sign with new teams. The Patriots (and other 31 NFL teams) need to be under the salary cap by the start of the league year, so there is just a few weeks to get their house in order.
With that, it seems the ideal time to take a look at the internal free agents and cap numbers of salaried veterans in New England where tough decisions need to be made as far as roster management. Kicking off the six-part series was kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and part two looked at a trio of veteran contributors in wide receiver Danny Amendola, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Part three got to the Pro Bowl secondary players looking at cornerback Darrelle Revis and free safety Devin McCourty. Part four addressed the mid-season acquisitions from 2014 in defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas. Part five switches focus to the offensive line and potential free agent guard Dan Connolly and the big cap number of left tackle Nate Solder.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY FIVE OF SIX: Nate Solder & Dan Connolly
Feb 1, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder (77) in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
One major question mark that faced the New England Patriots heading into the 2014 season was on the offensive line. Long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had retired following the 2013 season after 30 seasons in New England. The Patriots hired former Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Giants offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo to replace “Coach Scar”. On top of that drastic change at the time of initial roster cuts during the pre-season the Patriots traded Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins who was a first round draft pick in 2005 and a leader and stalwart on the offensive line.
Through the first four weeks of the 2014 season it appeared that the offensive line would be the Achilles heel of the Patriots’ offense. In week one, New England lost in Miami and the entire offensive line was a mess. The team saw tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer dominated by Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon while rookie guard Jordan Devey was a disaster at right guard and back-up tackle Marcus Cannon was a mess playing at left guard. By week four’s “Monday Night Massacre” in Kansas City it was clear that while Solder and Vollmer had begun to stabilize at tackle, the combinations of Devey, Cannon, and rookie tackle Cameron Fleming playing on the interior offensive line was not working.
Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder (77) celebrates with guard Dan Connolly (63) after scoring a touchdown on a pass reception against the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
It was no coincidence that in week five against Cincinnati when New England turned their season around that settling on the offensive line combination made a big impact on their success. Veteran guard Dan Connolly solidified the left guard spot that had been a turnstile in the first four weeks and left tackle Nate Solder–who had played exclusively with Mankins next to him at guard for the past three seasons–seemed to be more comfortable with Connolly aligned to his right.
After finally stabilizing the offensive line, the Patriots have two difficult decisions to make before free agency starts in March with the left side of the line. Left guard Dan Connolly is a free agent and left tackle Nate Solder had his fifth-year option picked up by the Patriots last year and carries a hefty cap charge in 2015.
Solder has been a solid piece of the Patriots’ offensive line since he was taken 17th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft with the pick the Patriots acquired from Oakland for defensive tackle Richard Seymour. As a rookie, Solder started at right tackle during New England’s Super Bowl run and has stabilized the important left tackle position. With the 2011 changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement allowing teams to bring back their first round draft picks for a fifth-year option, the Patriots keep Solder an extra season at the average salary of players ranked 3rd through 25th in salary for the position.
Jan 18, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tackle Nate Solder (77) catches a pass from quarterback Tom Brady (12) and runs for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
For Solder, it means a jump from a base salary of $769,806 and roster bonus of $769,806 with a $2.7 million cap hit in 2014 to a straight salary of $7.348 million and subsequent $7.348 million cap hit (all salary data courtesy of OvertheCap.com). The salary is commensurate for a solid pass-blocking left tackle but the cap hit is where the Patriots have work to do before the NFL 2015 League Year begins and that entire salary becomes guaranteed.
Look for the Patriots to try to extend Solder for another four or five years. Despite the criticism of Solder levied on local talk radio, he is a very good pass blocker and solid road grader in the running game. The Patriots may use right tackle Sebastian Vollmer’s 4-year, $27 million contract as a template for Solder. Without the injury history that Vollmer had, the Patriots may need to just increase the dollar value for Solder without the playing time percentage bonuses and increase the signing bonus ($7 million) and guaranteed money.
Nov 30, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; New England Patriots guard Dan Connolly (63) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 26-21. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Connolly seemed to be on his last legs in New England in 2013. After the undrafted free agent carved out a role in New England starting at center on the team’s run to the Super Bowl in the 2011 season, he was signed to a 3 year, $9.75 million contract before the 2012 season. In 2012 he moved to right guard and seemingly took a step backwards. His contract looked like one likely to be terminated to make cap space last year in training camp.
Connolly made the team and played almost all every snap in 2013 save for an injury against New Orleans in week six. In 2014 he again seemed the likely cap casualty in training camp but New England instead traded Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins and Connolly emerged to play out the final year of his contract in 2014.
He started the season back at center for the first time since 2011 before giving way to rookie Bryan Stork once he was healthy enough to play. Sliding to left guard solidified the offensive line for New England. In fact, his value was felt most when he missed time with various injuries to his neck, ankle, and knee. With his calming veteran presence missing on the offensive line, the entire line seemed to struggle without him.
January 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and offensive lineman Dan Connolly (63) against the Denver Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
While Connolly clearly was not even close to 100% healthy, he gutted out a number of games playing on one leg. In 2014 Connolly earned every penny on his contract. Unfortunately, football is a business and Connolly is 32 years old. At his age and with his injuries last season he is likely in line for a pay-cut, regardless of his value to the team. Whether he is willing to take that pay decrease and stay in New England remains to be seen.
For Nate Solder an extension is almost a must-do for the Patriots with the high cap number he would command in 2015. The extension could lower his cap number $3 or 4 million and keep him in New England. Solder was a first-round pick and has kept Tom Brady upright–a major consideration at negotiation time. The key will be if Solder and his representation want to pass up the chance at free agency.
With Dan Connolly it may not be too easy to find common ground and like with interior offensive lineman Ryan Wendell last season and the Patriots may again let the veteran establish his market in free agency. Wendell did not get a lot of attention from other teams and came back on an incentive-laden deal that protected the team if he did not play but gave him starter money if he won the job. It was a fair deal for both sides and may be the deal the Patriots present to the 32 year old Connolly if they want him back.