- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's hard to argue when the New England Patriots invest their top draft choice to protect quarterback Tom Brady's blindside, which is what they did in tapping mammoth Colorado offensive tackle Nate Solder with the 17th selection of the 2011 NFL draft on Thursday night.
The 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder fills a large void in an area the Patriots had targeted to rebuild this offseason. But another large void remains, and how the wheeling-and-dealing Patriots fill it will ultimately tell the story of their 2011 draft.
They still need help with the pass rush and in the defensive front seven.
If the Patriots don't come out of the next few rounds with help in that area -- where they have five picks -- there will be plenty of second-guessing in New England. And it would be hard to argue with that.
Defensive linemen Cameron Jordan (24th, Saints), Muhammad Wilkerson (30th, Jets) and Cameron Heyward (31st, Steelers), all of whom projected as solid fits, were available. And potential stud outside linebacker Robert Quinn slipped all the way to 14th -- well within striking range of a trade-up -- but the Patriots took a different course with Solder before swapping the 28th overall pick to the New Orleans Saints.
That deal with the Saints, who selected running back Mark Ingram, netted a 2011 second-round choice (56th overall) and a 2012 first-round choice. That is terrific value, but again, doesn't answer the big question: Where's the pass rush and front-seven help?
This puts some pressure on the Patriots to come up with the answer Friday, and Belichick clearly likes some of the remaining options on the board. Add a strong pass-rushing outside linebacker like Pittsburgh's Jabaal Sheard, for example, and the draft suddenly looks a lot different.
"There are players that are going to be able to help teams in this league," Belichick said late Thursday night.
For now, it's understandable why some fans might have been left scratching their Patriots helmets, but Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt with his track record. From the sound of it, Belichick had narrowed his first-round choices to Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey or Solder, and when the Dolphins nabbed Pouncey at 15, the choice was an easy one.
"We turned in the pick relatively quickly; we felt pretty good about what was on the board and picking Nate there," said Belichick, adding that Solder will be locked in at left tackle, potentially putting the future of Matt Light -- an unrestricted free agent -- with the Patriots in question.
Unlike other top prospects in the draft, Solder wasn't present at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night, instead watching from the bed-and-breakfast his parents run in Leadville, Colo. -- Peri & Ed's Mountain Hideaway. That reflects his personality and also the pick itself: No sizzle, just solid.
Solder, who worked out for Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia on Monday in what amounted to the team putting the exclamation point on its scouting report of him, sounded humbled to be chosen as the leading candidate to become Brady's new blindside protector. If he proves as durable and productive as he was at Colorado, where he was on the field for 2,540 out of a possible 2,542 plays over the past three seasons and allowed just five sacks, Brady will be well-protected as he plays into his late 30s.
"I think Tom Brady is a great quarterback; I'm looking forward to the privilege of playing for the Patriots," said Solder, who is scheduled to arrive at Gillette Stadium on Friday for the traditional photo shoot with owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft. "My mentality is that I don't want anything given to me. I want to earn everything I get."
Spoken like a Patriot, which is why Solder should fit in just fine here. That was reinforced by one scout who graded Solder closely leading up to the draft and summed up his thoughts this way: Prototypical Patriot.
Belichick hasn't missed on many first-round picks in his 11 drafts with the team -- running back Laurence Maroney was arguably his biggest swing-and-miss in 2006 -- and this year it will be interesting to see what type of pro Ingram becomes. If Ingram is the next Emmitt Smith, as some have projected, the trade with the Saints might be one Belichick regrets.
It's deals like those that might lead some to question whether Belichick sometimes outsmarts himself on draft day, but again, the track record deserves respect. Only Belichick has the true gauge of the quality left on the Patriots' board, how deep the running back class is and how realistic it is to find an impact pass-rusher in the next few rounds.
It's an incomplete picture right now, and more time is needed to assess.
Friday should tell us more, and it starts with answering the question: Where's the pass rush and front-seven help?
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
13hDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information