When news broke that former Patriots left tackle Nate Solder was heading to New York, one of the first questions raised was how much money it had taken for the Giants to sign him away as a free agent.
The answer figured to be staggering, and it didn’t disappoint. Solder got a four-year contract worth $62 million, $34.9 million of it guaranteed. With an average annual value of $15.5 million, the Giants made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL.
In some ways, it was an overpay. Solder is a very good player, but it seemed understandable that the Patriots weren’t willing to go that high for a player probably outside the top-5 at his position. On the other hand, implicit in that sum was the challenge New England is now facing: teams pay up for free agent offensive linemen because it’s hard to find them in the draft.
Last year, only two offensive linemen — Garett Bolles and Ryan Ramczyk — were taken in the first round. The first taken was Bolles, at No. 20 by the Broncos. That was the latest the first offensive lineman had come off the board in the modern NFL draft era.
“It was also the worst offensive line year ever as far as offensive line guys drafted,” NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock said on a conference call before the Combine. “There were 33 total. None in the top 15, and only two in the first round. Typically, we get 44 offensive linemen drafted in a typical draft. So it’s kind of amazing to look at that and answer the question why.”
That won’t happen this year, as Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is regarded as one of the best overall talents in the draft and should go in the top 10. But Nelson is the exception, not the rule. As Mayock said, particularly as the Patriots enter the draft in search of a new player to protect Tom Brady’s blind side, the question on everyone’s minds is why this is happening, and what teams can do to stop it.
“I think with any sort of epidemic you’re looking for a root and with this epidemic that we’re seeing I don’t think there’s one singular root that we can point to. I think there are many elements involved,” said LeCharles Bentley, a former NFL offensive lineman who now runs LB O-Line Performance, a by-invitation training and development club for offensive linemen. “When you look at it just from a physical standpoint, this skill set of the players, within the skill set, this set of players are bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic than any players in the history of the game at offensive line play.
“So, if we’re looking at or dealing with athletes that physically are so much more advanced than their historical peers, it begs the question why can’t we quote-unquote develop these truly gifted people?”
There are a few popular excuses. The scarcity of full-contact, padded practices under the current collective bargaining agreement is one, but Bentley thinks it’s overrated, since live one-on-ones are where players are supposed to perform, not perfect their fundamentals.
There’s also the prevalence of spread offenses in college football, which send linemen to the NFL who have little experience lining up in a three-point stance and are used to playing at a much higher tempo, not holding blocks for as long and rarely dealing with secondary moves or complicated stunts and twists from defenders.
The Patriots have a huge asset in this area in offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has helped Shaq Mason, Marcus Cannon and LaAdrian Waddle develop as professionals. All those players, though, took time to develop, a luxury New England was able to offer them.
“It’s hard to get NFL-ready guys at any position to come in but tackle is a difficult one to come in and just from ‘Day One’ perform at a high level,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last November. “Sometimes it takes a year or two like it did with — Marcus Cannon is a good example. But we’ve had other guys fall into that category as well. If you get them early and you have time to work with them then maybe you can bring them along at your pace instead of throwing them in there and having some plays that you don’t want to have before you want to have them.”
Bentley, though, said there are other factors that get overlooked, and one in particular stands out to him.
“If there’s anybody, outside of quarterback, that needs to be truly sliced and diced in terms of really getting to the core of what that person or what that athlete is or what they’re capable of, it’s the offensive line athlete,” Bentley said.
The thing is, offensive linemen are often just asked to be tough. Tough, big and physical. No one gets the same kind of slicing and dicing and questioning about mental makeup that quarterbacks do, but evaluations of linemen don’t tend to even come close.
Consider Ereck Flowers, the player Solder was signed to replace at left tackle in New York. The Giants drafted Flowers at No. 9 overall in 2015 on the basis of his incredible physical traits, and safe to say they weren’t expecting to pay another player $62 million three years down the road when they did it.
Flowers hasn’t played well, and seems to have struggled with scrutiny and criticism. He once shoved a Giants reporter in the locker room and rarely speaks publicly. When he does, the tenor is usually surly. Flowers reportedly refused to play in New York’s Week 17 game last season and was the only Giant not at the first voluntary workout last week.
High draft picks can get crushed under the burden of unfair expectations and, without knowing Flowers personally, it’s impossible to make a determination about his mental makeup. But today’s professional athletes in general have to have a certain kind of mental fortitude to withstand the constant stream of criticism that comes via social media, and the fact that they live their lives largely in public.
NFL executives and evaluators, then, would do well to spend more time deciding which prospects are going to be able to handle all that, Bentley said. It’s important for linemen in particular because of the way they can be exposed on the field.
“It’s one thing if you’re a cornerback and someone runs by you. Alright. Maybe you had a bad snap or you didn’t open your hips. Or, a quarterback. Maybe you just have a missed read, you throw an interception,” Bentley said. “But it’s a completely different world when Aaron Donald runs into your chest and you end up on your back. Like, that’s a completely different level of exposure emotionally, physically, that players have to be physically and mentally ready for.
“And I think that’s something that we try to just simply brush off as ‘Well you’ve got to be tough.’ Well, alright, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t be in this situation that we are in today.”
Yet another factor is the requirement, for most NFL linemen, that they be versatile enough to play multiple spots along the line.
The Patriots generally enter a game with seven offensive linemen active, sometimes eight. That means the two-to-three backups have to be able to back up all five positions, or there has to be some configuration involving a starter switching positions to account for an injury at any of the five starting spots.
The thing is, offensive linemen aren’t entering the league ready to play multiple spots, and they’re often asked to switch positions without the proper regard for how difficult that can be, Bentley said.
“It’s very difficult to go from playing on the right side to the left side and I think that’s something that fans and even coaches overlook. If you think it’s the same thing, it is not,” Bentley said.
Bentley used the analogy of asking a righthanded person to write with their left hand. It’s awkward and ineffective.
Not to pick on Flowers, but he may turn out to be an example for this as well. Flowers has played left tackle for his three years in the NFL, and he played left tackle in college. Things may only get harder for him now that he’s being asked to move to the other side of the line. Going back to the drawing board to do something that feels uncomfortable, too, is yet another thing that’s as taxing mentally as it is physically.
Flowers is far from the only cautionary tale and the Patriots, who could easily use one of their first-round picks to select a left tackle.
A good place to start would be by trying to figure out which players have the patience and confidence — not just toughness — to handle the task of developing as an NFL offensive lineman, something that teams and players across the league have been struggling to do.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: BEST OF THE BUNCH
A unanimous All-American in 2017, Nelson is an elite prospect with aggression and power in spades and the fundamental soundness to make an impact right away.
Senior captain for the Irish and first cousin of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, McGlinchey may need to add mass to his frame but moves well, is technically sound, and can play and the left or right.
A four-year starter at left guard, Hernandez has a base like a California redwood and would help any team's rushing game right off the bat, though his 32-inch arms are shorter than teams prefer.
Miller has drawn Nate Solder comparisons because of his height and athleticism. He protected Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen's blind side for all 13 games last season and was second-team All-Pac-12, but his tape is up-and-down.
Williams sat out all but five games last season with a knee injury, but was a first-team All-American in 2016 as a left tackle. He could move inside in the NFL but is effective enough in space to compensate for a lack of length as long as his body holds up.
Huge mauler who was an Outland Trophy finalist and Associated Press first-team All-American in 2017, but his lack of athleticism will hurt him.
Played both tackle spots in college but could move inside in the NFL. Will be coveted by teams that place a high value on physical traits.
Best of the rest: G Isaiah Wynn, Georgia (6-3, 313, n/a, 2-3); C James Daniels*, Iowa (6-3, 295, n/a, 2-3); T/G Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State (6-5, 305, n/a, 3); T Chukwuma Okorafor, Western Michigan (6-6, 330, 5.31, 3); T Will Richardson*, North Carolina State (6-6, 304, 5.26, 3); C Billy Price, Ohio State (6-4, 312, n/a, 3); T Jamarco Jones, Ohio State (6-5, 310, 5.5, 3-4); T Brian O’Neill*, Pittsburgh (6-7, 305, 4.82, 3-4).
* denotes underclassman