The Patriots lost Nate Solder on Wednesday when the stalwart left tackle agreed to a four-year deal with the Giants that, according to the NFL Network, will make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL.
The seventh-year veteran, a first-round pick out of Colorado, is coming off a pair of solid seasons after missing a good chunk of time with a torn biceps in 2015.
Solder, who was the top left tackle on the free agent market, received a pact worth $62 million — an average of $15.5 million per year — with a whopping $34.9 million guaranteed.
He just completed a two-year, $20.6 million extension off his rookie deal.
The 6-foot-8-inch, 325-pounder’s departure leaves a big hole (literally and figuratively) on New England’s offensive line.
Finding a replacement to protect Tom Brady’s blindside now becomes a top priority. The team’s top backups from last season, Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle, also are free agents. Both filled in admirably when starting right tackle Marcus Cannon went down with an ankle injury last season but neither has extensive experience on the left side.
The Patriots took Tony Garcia in the third round last year but the 6-7, 302-pounder developed an illness in the preseason and missed the entire season.
Garcia, who is expected to be healthy and ready for OTAs, was around the team all season, though he had dropped considerable weight. As a senior at Troy University, Garcia didn’t allow a single sack in more than 900 snaps.
Another name to remember is Andrew Jelks. An undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, the 6-6, 307-pounder also missed his rookie season as he rehabbed knee injuries suffered in college. Jelks, who was named to the SEC all-freshman team in 2013, missed his final two college seasons because of knee injuries, practiced some toward the end of the season but was never activated.
The team could also look to the draft to replenish the position.
Solder is the fourth Patriots free agent to bolt in the last two days with receiver Danny Amendola (Miami), running back Dion Lewis (Tennessee), and cornerback Malcolm Butler (Tennessee) finding new homes on Tuesday.
Solder, who will turn 30 next month, was a Pro Bowl alternate last season, the first such honor of his career. He has played in 98 games (95 starts) in his career. Solder played right tackle as a rookie in 2011 but took over as the left tackle in 2012.
Other than 2015, Solder has been a remarkably durable player. He overcame testicular cancer early in his career. His son, Hudson, was diagnosed with a form of kidney cancer in 2016 and is still being treated for the disease.
A year ago, Solder talked about the support he received from Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization as he balanced being there for his family and his team.
“Very early on, Bill and I sat down and he said, ‘Whatever you need [we’ll] accommodate that,’ ’’ Solder said. “And I said, ‘Listen Bill, that might mean missing a game or missing an extended amount of time if he needs surgery or something,’ and Bill never flinched . . . The way they supported us through that, all the coaches and everyone, gave us a lot of encouragement and helped our family through everything.’’
Solder, who was the Patriots’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award this past season, was lauded by Belichick shortly after the announcement in early December.
“Nate works hard, he’s always been a great teammate, a great worker in the weight room and on the field, very diligent, always tries to do his absolute best, whatever you ask him to do,’’ said the coach. “He started off playing right tackle for us and then left tackle. He played a lot of jumbo tight end his rookie year. He’s always embraced whatever role it is we’ve asked him to take on and has done his absolute best with it.
“Off the field, I think his involvement with his family and what he does in other areas, charitable areas, and with underprivileged children and hospital visits and so forth is exemplary, and that’s been well recognized, as well. He does a great job.’’