While the biggest point of discussion regarding the New England Patriots’ roster this past off-season – make that the last two off-seasons – has been regarding the pass rush, one somewhat overlooked but equally critical topic is that of the offensive line. I’m not sure if that is because the unit has been so consistent and dependable, or if positions such as wide receiver and running back get more attention because those players get their hands on the ball and score touchdowns, but the players responsible for keeping Tom Brady upright are in a bit of a transition this year. What happens to one of those players will affect the others – and that domino effect begins with left tackle Matt Light.


Many fans jumped to the conclusion that Light would not be re-signed when the Patriots drafted Nate Solder in the first round with the 17th overall pick. But is that really a foregone conclusion? Starting a rookie at tackle may be fine for a rebuilding team coming off a losing season, but it is a dicey proposition for a club that is expected to be one of the top contenders for a championship. Now figure in the fact that rookies have not had the benefit of any coaching, mini-camps, or OTA’s this year, and the reality is that their expectations on just how much they can be expected to produce and to be relied upon need to be tempered dramatically. That holds true even more so for a position such as tackle, where the learning curve is much steeper than a position such as running back.


So what are the options for the Patriots, and what are the options for Matt Light?


For Light, I would think that he is looking for at least a three-year deal. Now I know NFL contracts are not guaranteed, but I would think he would want it structured where much of that is guaranteed – in other words, not a deal where it would be easy for the Pats to cut him after one season. According to Tom Curran (who gave a nice shout out to Miguel, by the way) he expects the 2011 cap to be about $115 million, with the Pats being about $18 to $20 million under the cap when the lockout ends. Although that amount can disappear quickly with the number of signings the team needs to make, it still bodes well for the Pats when you consider that includes Logan Mankins’ franchise tender, and the recent contracts signed by Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork.


So if the Patriots are so inclined to bring Light back – which truly does make sense to me – they have the flexibility to do so. One thing that has been apparent to me watching football over the years is that the effectiveness of an offensive line is in no small part due their continuity and length of time playing together. Bringing Light back for another year gives Solder time to learn the system, learn what it’s like to play in the NFL, and develop a bit of cohesion with the rest of the line; that in turn will make the unit that much stronger in 2012 as well.


Another option would be to give Light a relatively large one-year deal. Again, the Pats have the cap space to do this, and this would mean they would not have to be concerned about potential dead cap money in 2012 and beyond. However, the deal would have to be big enough for Light to accept; why agree to a one-year contract when another team is making an offer with a signing bonus that they can spread out for cap purposes over a three or four year deal? The potential downside to this is that this maneuver could somewhat limit other potential free agent signings, and it could impact the amount of money available to extend Logan Mankins.


Oh yeah, Logan Mankins – the elephant in the room.


Top NFL guards get six or seven year deals that average about $8 million per year for the first three seasons. Extending Mankins would not only save the Pats some money this year – he’ll make over $10 million playing under the franchise tag – but it would also address what could potentially be a huge concern for the organization. What would happen if Light were to leave via free agency, and Mankins held out looking for a new deal? Do you really want to go into the season with a complete change on the left side of the offensive line? And even if you do have that much confidence in Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly, what are you going to do on the other side? Bring back Nick Kaczur and hope his back is okay now? Kaczur’s salary is $3.4 million and his cap number is $4.3 million; on the other hand if he is released it frees up over $3 million in cap space. It makes no sense for the Patriots to do this, which is something they need to consider when it comes to their financial decisions with Mankins and Light.


Light leaving as a free agent would give Mankins a lot of leverage in his contract negotiations. It would also mean money would need to be spent on a replacement, but with Vollmer and Solder on the roster it would not make any sense to spend a lot of money as they are the future of the Pats at tackle. That in turn means either that Solder (and Brady) takes his lumps by starting right away, or the same result with another free agent such as Ryan O’Callaghan being signed to fill in. The other options currently on the roster – Mark LeVoir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Steve Maneri – don’t exactly inspire confidence; they’re best suited for their current roles as backups at the bottom of the roster, not as a season-long starter.


The moment the Patriots drafted Nate Solder, Matt Light’s days in Foxboro were numbered. And although there are teams that may very well be interested in his services – the Bears, Cowboys, Colts, Redskins and Bills all immediately come to mind – it is still in the Patriots best interest that they find some way to retain his services for 2011, even though he is 33, even though he is coming off shoulder surgery, and even though opponents had more sacks from the left side than they have had since Drew Bledsoe was the starting quarterback.


If not, there’s a very good chance things could get ugly for this offense in general, and for Tom Brady specifically this season.