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Sold on Solder

Colorado tackle is Patriots’ choice

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By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 29, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — With several projected defensive playmakers there for the taking, and with New England perceived to be in need of a pass rusher, the Patriots did just what all of their fans thought they’d do:

They chose an offensive lineman.

With the 17th overall pick in the NFL draft last night, the Patriots selected Colorado tackle Nate Solder, a 6-foot-8-inch, 319-pound converted tight end who allowed just five sacks in more than 1,400 pass plays over his last three seasons with the Buffaloes.

Solder was at his parents’ bed and breakfast in Leadville, Colo., when he got the call from Bill Belichick that the Patriots had made him part of their team.

“I was sitting there hoping and praying that they picked me because it’s such a great organization,’’ Solder said via conference call.

The 23-year-old didn’t have a lot of contact with New England before the draft, he said, working out Monday with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. He had been scheduled to make a visit to Foxborough, but the team canceled it the day before he was to arrive.

A source who played with Solder at Colorado called him “a physical beast’’ who “has all the tools’’ but is also very soft-spoken.

Having Scarnecchia work Solder out was just “a piece of the puzzle,’’ Belichick said. “He’s been a pretty consistent player for them. It’s not like he was any big secret.’’

A native of Buena Vista, Colo., where he was a highly rated tight end and linebacker prospect coming out of high school, Solder redshirted his freshman year and played as a blocking tight end and special-teams contributor the next season.

But after packing 30 pounds onto his frame, he moved to tackle before the 2008 season and remained Colorado’s starting left tackle for the duration of his time at the school.

The selection of Solder addresses a position of some need for New England: veteran Matt Light, drafted in 2001, is a free agent. Sebastian Vollmer, heading into his third season, could be flipped to left tackle after starting every game at right tackle last season.

Guard Logan Mankins, who received the team’s franchise tag, remains unhappy with his contract status, a season after he held out for the first seven games. And 10-year veteran lineman Stephen Neal has retired.

Nick Kaczur missed all of last season after back surgery and his future with the team is cloudy given the combination of his health and his $3.4 million in base salary for the coming season.

Solder only played left tackle with the Buffs, but it’s hard to imagine the Patriots won’t try him on the right side to see if he has that versatility.

Solder was incredibly durable in college: He missed just two of 2,542 plays and none as a senior, when the Buffs had 847 offensive snaps.

“I think that was in a game situation, one of the backups was in there just to kneel the ball,’’ Solder said. “When they told me I missed two snaps I had to think about what happened because I didn’t remember missing the snaps.’’

Colorado coaches graded Solder out at 94.3 (out of 100) for the season. He allowed just one sack, was credited with 142 finishes or knockdown blocks, and drew only one penalty.

He was selected as an All-American by numerous publications and websites, and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy, given to college football’s top interior lineman.

According to Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki, Solder is a “project’’ who needs to get stronger. But he’s a hard-working and very coachable player, which will serve him well as he comes under the tutelage of Scarnecchia.

“He’s an unbelievable coach,’’ Solder said. “One of the best in the NFL, and that was completely obvious when I met with him. I look forward to the opportunity to play with him.’’

Solder acknowledged that he has a lot of work to do, but it won’t be the first time he’s undergone a big transition.

“My coaches came to me and said, ‘You’d be an all right tight end, but you’d be an even better tackle,’ ’’ he recalled of his position change. “I’ve always wanted to be great, so that’s why I moved to tackle. It’s been a process. I have a lot to learn, and that’s a huge reason that I’m happy that Belichick and Scarnecchia will be coaching me.’’

While many draft evaluators had Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo rated as a better tackle than Solder, it’s interesting to note that Scarnecchia ran the position drills at BC’s pro day, so he got an up-close look at Castonzo.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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