The Texans had one of the worst offensive lines in football last year. They were a mediocre run blocking team, bloated by Deshaun Watson’s ability to reanimate cold flabby flesh. They averaged 4.0 yards a carry and ranked 21st in run offense DVOA. The pass blocking is what sunk the Texans’ offense last year. Twelve gnarled offensive linemen were mangled around into seven different starting combinations that combined to allow 54 sacks, had an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% (30th), and ranked last in pressure rate at 37.9%.
Coming into this offseason with $63,802,367.00 in cap space after cutting Brian Cushing, we assumed Houston would invest the majority of their available funds to repair the team’s largest weakness, the offensive line. Permissible tampering with free agents began five days ago. Since the doors have been kicked in, Houston has brought in Zach Fulton, Seantrel Henderson, Senio Kelemete, and tendered Greg Mancz.
There’s one thing missing there. A left tackle. Houston added a right tackle that hasn’t played real snaps since 2016 and a pair of guards, one of whom is expected to start and another who cold.
This year’s left tackle market was just like last year’s tackle market. Devoid and empty. Not very good. Teams were forced to overpay for marginal players. The best of the bunch was New England’s longtime left tackle, Nate Solder. He’s average, but he’s in average offensive tackle in a market that made him the highest paid offensive lineman in football. Solder is this year’s version of Russell Okung.
Solder signed a four-year contract worth a possible $62 million, with $35 million guaranteed and a salary cap hit of $10 million in 2018. In free agency, teams don’t pay what a player is worth; they pay what it takes to bring that player to their team. Solder is not one of the ten best tackles in football, but he is now paid like he is. Because of position scarcity, a $35 million guaranteed contract is what it took for the New York Giants to bring in a pretty good offensive tackle.
This offensive tackle’s game is based around his feet. At 6’8” with zippy feet, Solder would be a great perimeter defender in a different sport. His kick-slides are pristine and perfect. When facing edge defenders, he usually beats them to the spot. This is what he’s best at.
Because he beats Brian Orakpo to the point of contact, Orakpo is forced past Tom Brady. He can’t turn the corner at an even plane. When he attempts to come back to the quarterback, Solder is able to plant, stay in front of Orakpo, and keep him in place until the ball is thrown. The punch here is whatever. It doesn’t matter. Solder’s feet allow him to make the block.
In conventional pass sets, this is what keeps Solder around. His feet are always there. His hands always aren’t. Inconsequential most of the time. His body is still there, pumping blood and standing in the way. It’s good enough.
On this play, he’s matched up against Erik Walden. Poor Walden. If he played in 1994, he would be getting paid $10 million a year to regress to the mean. Solder’s punch is meek. It doesn’t do anything to Walden. The edge rusher bounces off of Solder and uses a stretchy arm to get wide and expand his pass rush. It doesn’t matter. Solder made contact ahead of Walden, and he’s able to recover and push Walden past the quick-throwing Brady.
Neither of these pass blocks are extraordinary. They’re fine. Fine is all you need when Tom Brady is your quarterback. Quarterbacks have more of an impact on pass protection than the offensive line does. When blocking for the best quarterback of all time, one who gets the ball out quickly, audibles, gets his players in the best position pre-snap, knows where to go with the ball, and maneuvers the pocket ideally, the individual pass blocking doesn’t have to be great. Despite playing without Solder in 2015 and going through multiple offensive linemen over the years, ones that would make other teams gag, the Patriots haven’t ranked worse than 15th in pressure rate or 16th in adjusted sack rate. Pretty good is more than enough.
When Brady is at work setting up quick passes like this one, an audible that gets the ball out quickly to Brandin Cooks against the poor tackling newborn Adoree Jackson, the linemen don’t even have to get out of their stance.
Despite Solder’s reputation as a lock-down pass blocker, the Patriots did a lot to help both their tackles out. They used Dwayne Allen often as a pseudo sixth offensive lineman to aid in pass protection during their postseason run. Running backs came out of the shotgun and hung onto edge rushers or chipped so the tackles could check their phone, sit, and wait for the defender to rev back up after the quarterback.
The other thing the Patriots did to help Solder out was have him pass set aggressively. Rather than kick-slide and wait, he would change things up and chase down edge rushers. He’d wheel in a cake and bring the party to the defender, ripping backs off the wall.
Here the defensive end is a ‘5’ technique. The Pats are running playaction. Solder takes two slides steps to cover him up. With hands inside, arms extended, and elbows parallel, he keeps his feet moving to shadow the defender. This is perfect. This is what elite pass protection looks like.
This is the same sort of set in the Super Bowl against Derek Barnett. It’s the same results.
Solder has the punch to dismantle defenders. It just rarely happens in conventional sets. Usually when he brings it, it’s in these quick sets when he can immediately get all over the defender.
There’s poison on this apple. These hostile pass sets and this aggressive attacking leave Solder susceptible to inside rushes. These inside moves are even more dismantling then outside ones. It provides a quicker path to the quarterback. The defender can arrive quick enough to affect even instant passes.
Solder takes his slide steps and pops Dante Fowler Jr. He extends, but he doesn’t grab. This allows Fowler to step back, adjust, look for the quarterback, and reengage. When Fowler comes back at Solder, he’s no longer square. The gate is open. Fowler has a path to Brady. He knocks Solder’s inside shoulder with his left arm and throws him wide, out of the way. This is a great pass rush move; it’s the type of move that’s made Whitney Mercilus a consistent NFL pass rusher. Coming down this same trail, he’s able to regurgitate a lazy pass out of Brady that still finds its way to Rob Gronkowski. Of course it does.
Here Orakpo cuts left and inside of Solder. But before Orakpo can summon mayhem, Brady is able to step up and find Dion Lewis wide open against the worst running back covering defense in football.
It took a metropolis of decisions for the Patriots to have a great pass protection in 2018. It took Brady, scheme reinforcement, and secondary players helping along the way for the Patriots to finish fifth in pressure rate at 26.4%. It wasn’t because of Solder’s left edge surveillance. It was far from that. If the Giants are expecting to just leave Solder out on his own, one on one, on every snap, Eli Manning is going to get knocked around and Solder’s problems will be exacerbated. Over the course of 40 passes a game in a different offense, Solder’s true performance will seep out.
Solder didn’t struggle throughout games last year. He held his own over the course of four quarters, but he did get beat multiple times in every game. When he did get beat, it was because of his punch. Solder’s shooting hands don’t consistently stifle and stop defenders. His hands don’t grasp and extend often enough to suffocate rushes. As long as he struggles with his hands, the edge defender has a chance to deal with his quick sets and turret feet.
This is a play action pass. Solder is facing Orakpo, who is lined up as a wide ‘5’. Solder pass-sets nicely and beats Orakpo to the spot. He unleashes both hands to punch and grab Orakpo. The punch does nothing. It arrives a little too soon. Solder merely touches the rusher like faux machismo before a fight that never becomes a fight. Solder keeps his right arm on Orakpo and tries to keep up, but Orakpo rips under and is able to force a deep dropbacking Brady to throw the ball early, knocking him to the ground.
Here Solder keeps up with the stretchy and spidery Yannick Ngakoue. Solder’s feet stop when he attempts to create contact and lunges. His feet don’t mesh with his hands. Because Solder’s feet are stuck and he leans over, Ngakoue is able to get wide and around him with his rip. The edge rusher plants and gets flat. Despite getting beat, it doesn’t matter. Ngakoue arrives after Brady has already thrown the ball.
When Solder misses blocks in pass conventional pass sets, it’s because of his hands. His punch doesn’t exert enough power. His hands don’t grab and hang onto the chest. The feet are always there. It’s Solder’s finger-attached limbs that let him down.
Now, there are times when the punch is there, and when it is, Solder is a great pass protector. When the punch puts fists through walls and breaks teeth like rock slinging flock protecting shepherds, Solder is one of the best pass protectors in football.
This pass set against Calais Campbell is spectacular. It’s the pinnacle of left tackle performance. The great pass set meets Solder with Campbell with Soler still square and strong. His punch stops Campbell like a slammed door in an empty house. The arms extend and he grabs the steering wheel.
The problem is these actions don’t happen often enough. If Solder did this twenty times a game, he’d be worth the contract he just got from the Giants on a pass happy team. But Solder doesn’t accomplish this twenty times every game. His pass protection is a coagulation. These blocks blend together, making him a good enough pass blocker for an incredible quarterback.
In the run game, Solder doesn’t offer anything at all. The Patriots were one of the better rushing football teams in football last year, and they did this by running the ball up the middle. The focal point of their offense was Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and CTE soaked cowboy collar wearing Mike Develin molding the interior of the line of scrimmage. These four players were first in inside adjusted line yards with 5.08 and led a rushing attack that finished third in DVOA. Play-side double teams moved the first level and got to the backside linebacker. Develin led to and smashed the unblocked linebacker. The backside guard blocked down. The tackles were there to block the ends and ensure no one chased from behind to ruin a great thing.
Most of Solder’s run blocking looked like this, zone blocking and doing enough to keep the end away. His feet putting him in position to do just enough.
The more troubling thing is Solder at the second level. He’s usually tentative. He doesn’t come after and attack the second level in spite of having great feet. Too often Solder is looking to only get in the way instead of punishing the second level.
There’s also just a general lack of feel at the second level. Solder struggles to make things happen there. This is an outside zone play to the left. He has a double team with his tight end. The defensive end gets moved down well. But rather than stay on the same angular path to the linebacker, Solder tries to come directly up and at him and doesn’t arrive. The linebacker is able to get wide and away from the block. This forces Develin to block the linebacker instead of the safety, who comes unblocked into the box to make the tackle.
Solder is a fine left tackle. His feet and athleticism are top tier, but his inconsistent hands prevent him from being a great pass blocker, and problems with his feet and hands working in unison also hinder him. He gets beaten throughout the game with inside rushes, and most blocks are never fully finished because his punch doesn’t stick him to the block. In New England, it didn’t matter. Tom Brady got the ball out quick enough and knew how to deal with pressure. The Patriots also limited the number of pass snaps Solder had to take by providing help on the edge and letting him set aggressively. Remove these situations and add a slower developing offense and quarterback, and what was once acceptable, becomes unbearable, considering the contract the Giants gave Solder.
For Houston, uncertainty is the result of losing out on Solder. They are forced to dumpster-dive and rummage around the DVD bin for offensive tackle help. Yet I believe the lottery, and all the sniffing and haggling that will come because of missing out on Solder, is better than committing too much for simply decent performance.
By not making Solder the highest-paid offensive lineman in football, the Texans can spread the wealth across their roster. They can grab the best available right tackle (whispers into Brian Gaine’s ear, “Cameron Fleming”) and they have more money to spend on defensive backs, the tight end position, and a possible edge defender, all without limiting their flexibility in the long term.
With what Solder signed for with the Giants, Houston is better off having Jeff Allen and Julie’n Davenport battle it out for the starting left tackle spot and Bill O’Brien scheming around the impending trouble. An offensive line composed of various parts, all competing for starting spots, is better than locking a mediocre player up to gilded contract to fill a dying need.
Houston didn’t sign Nate Solder. They do not employ the highest-paid offensive lineman in the league. And that’s fine.