The Patriots' first pick of April's draft signified a change in philosophy from their 2010 draft, when they selected four immediate starters — Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes.
With its first pick of the 2011 draft, New England selected OT Nate Solder, a converted tight end who was "very much a project," according to Nolan Nawrocki, PFW's draft analyst, as written in the Pro Football Weekly 2011 Draft Preview.
Solder didn't project as a Day One starter, and neither did any of the other Patriots draftees, which included a pair of reserve running backs and a third-string quarterback. Sticking with the O-line, the Patriots went developmental again in the fifth round, selecting TCU's Marcus Cannon.
With Solder and Cannon getting to see the field in 2011, the Patriots have a glimpse into the future of the team's offensive line, a group that has three players who are 32 or older — Matt Light, Dan Koppen (I.R.) and Brian Waters.
Cannon is a tremendous story. An early-round talent, Cannon was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma before the draft, dropping him to the fifth round. With the cancer in full remission, Cannon was not only active but also played in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' Week 11 win over the Chiefs. The way we hear it, Cannon has practiced at guard, but as we've seen this season, the Patriots can never have too many tackles.
Solder, who has started seven games this season when ORT Sebastian Vollmer was out with an injury, often plays as the team's extra tight end to help with the run game, putting three tackles on the field for running downs.
"It has been a pretty productive grouping for us all year because we can do a few different things out of it," Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien said this week.
We hear that Light, who signed a two-year deal to re-sign with the team in the offseason, may not be back next season. Vollmer has already given up a career-high three sacks this season.
The team is clearly very pleased with Solder's development, as there wasn't a hesitation about whether or not to start him at tackle when Vollmer was hurt. Not to mention that instead of signing a veteran tight end, the Patriots use Solder. "He's a versatile guy, he's got good intelligence," said O'Brien.
One source said that Cannon could be Waters' eventual replacement at right guard. Cannon has good agility for a lineman his size.
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