Cowboys Draft Prospects: Nate Solder

Our trek through the first round tackles continues. Today, we stop in Boulder, Colorado, the home of the Buffalo's big (6-8, 319) left tackle. Nate Solder started his CU career as a tight end, first as a redshirt in 2006 and then as a freshman in 2007, when he played in all 13 games, largely on special teams and in multiple tight end sets. For his sophomore campaign Solder added 30 pounds, was moved to the tackle position, and did not miss a snap the entire season. In 2009, he continued to cement his status as one of the nation's leading tackles; he was the only offensive lineman who was not a senior to make the 2009 All-Big 12 First-Team. Last year, was named the 2010 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year after playing all 847 snaps on offense.

Colorado's coaches claim that Solder had the best year of all the CU linemen in 2010 and likely the best since Andre Gurode in 2001, grading out at 94.3 percent for the season, with 799 plus-plays out of 847 total. He graded at 90 percent or higher in 11 of 12 games, and cleared 80 percent in the other, at California. Conveniently enough, video of that game can be found here. Indeed, his trophy case was filled to burstin' as a result of the 2010 campaign; Solder was chosen by his teammates to be one of CU's four co-captains; they also selected him as the recipient of the Zack Jordan Award as the team's most valuable player. He was one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy; a consensus All-American, having been awarded that honor from the AP, the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and Walter Camp.

Solder's prime asset is his athleticism; he is surprisingly quick for his size--he's been timed running a 4.8 forty--and has good feet, and long arms to redirect. Solder's certainly a specimen: he has power-cleaned 415 pounds for three repetitions, hang-cleaned 473 pounds for three repetitions, squats over 600 pounds and was measured with eight-percent body fat. At the Combine, he bench pressed 225 pounds 21 times (not bad for a man with arms the length of his), displayed remarkable speed and explosiveness (with a 9-2 broad jump), and had the top 10-yard split (1.62 seconds unofficial) among all offensive linemen. A video of his impressive performance can be seen here.

His athleticism and good tape have drawn interest from several teams around the league. In addition to the Cowboys, he has paid visits to the Redskins, Colts and Patriots. He'll visit Minnesota on Friday. Why are all these teams interested in the big tackle? See what some of our favorite OL talent scouts say after the jump...

National Football Post (Wes Bunting) 6th-rated OT; 61st overall

A physical specimen for the position who possesses a rare combination of size, length and overall athleticism. You can tell he's a former tight end by the way he lines up in a three-point stance at times, as he exhibits good flexibility and can keep his base down. Has improved on his kick-slide this year, but will get overextended quickly and open up his hips vs. speed off the edge. Does a much better job staying clean and compact with his footwork when he knows he has help on the outside in the form of a chip. However, when left on an island, hes more athlete than technician and despite his good lateral quickness, he can be exposed to the "up and under." Possesses good range off the edge despite the fact at times he is forced to open up his hips. However, I would like to see him do a better job keeping his hands up and set on his kick-slide and be ready to punch at any time. Too often gets his hands down around his waist and struggles to anchor and fight off undersized defensive ends who want to get under him when flattening out around the edge. However, can sit into his stance vs. the bull rush, does a nice job working his arms/hands for inside leverage, slides his feet well through contact and can stick to blocks through the play.

Now, he is a gifted athlete in space and showcased better pop and power as a run blocker than given credit. Has the ability to sit into his stance, gain leverage into contact, extend his arms and finish with a strong lower body push. Can consistently drive defenders off the ball as an in-line guy one-on-one, but at times will get overextended and fall off blocks after initial contact. Looks natural on the move as well and has the ability to get into blocks quickly and create a bit of a surge at the point of attack. Breaks down well in space, exhibits some short-area quickness and can routinely seal his target.

Impression: A guy who will likely be over drafted based on upside — and rightfully so, as he has the skill set to be as good as he wants to be in the NFL. However, has a lot of cleaning up to be entrusted as a left tackle early in his NFL career and I could see him being better suited to play on the right side because of his ability to win in the run game. Reminds me some of former second-round pick Sebastian Vollmer.

The Sporting News (Russ Lande) 3rd-rated OT; 61st overall

Run blocking: Lacks the strength to dominate defensive linemen on straight-ahead run blocks, but is a good all-around run blocker. Has the quickness to get to the outside defensive end and pin him inside so the running back can get around the corner. Is adept at reach blocks. Does a good job of driving defensive linemen down the line of scrimmage on side blocks and is quick getting to the second level to block linebackers.

Pass blocking: Is able to slide out to the corner to consistently cut off explosive speed rushers. Works well with the offensive guard to handle a defensive lineman's stunts with ease. Maintains pass blocks well and keeps his man from pressuring the quarterback. Keeps his hands too low in pass protection, which leaves him vulnerable to power rushers.

Initial quickness: Is quick out of his stance and uses good technique in pass protection allowing him to cut off explosive edge rushers. Has the ability to get around shaded defensive linemen and seal them from the play. Is quick getting to the second level to block the linebacker.

Strength
: Looks thin and could use some added bulk. Does not show the strength to drive his man off the ball on straight-ahead run blocks. Fails to use his hands aggressively to punch in pass protection.

Mobility: Gets through the line of scrimmage quickly to block the linebacker and open a hole for the running back. Bends at the waist sometimes to make blocks in space, but shows excellent athleticism in his ability to maintain his balance and not end up on the ground.

Bottom line
: Solder only has one year of experience at offensive tackle, as he converted from tight end last season. However, he still projects as an elite player at the next level. Solder is not without faults (especially his hand usage), but his athleticism and technique make him worth a high draft pick.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki) 4th-rated OT; 25th overall

Positives: Has excellent size with long arms and a frame to grow into. Carries his weight well and still has the movement skills of a tight end, outperforming many in the 20-yard shuttle (4.34) at the Combine, where he led all offensive tackles. Very athletic with good body control and balance. Fluid on the move—can work up a level and eliminate linebackers. Outstanding character. Worked very hard to bulk up and is dedicated to improvement—the game is important to him. Unselfish, business-like, coachable, team player.

Negatives: Plays too tall, cannot handle power and too often oversets and gives up the inside. Struggles to generate movement off the line. Struggles to sink his hips and counter. Could always have leverage and core strength deficiencies given his length. Not strong-handed and does not use his hands with any authority. Does not play with substance and can be overpowered and outquicked to the inside. Only bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times and needs to get stronger. Marginal Senior Bowl performance—too often was beat in practice and in the game, was disappointing in one-on-one drills and did not handle kicking inside well.

Summary: A converted tight end who has gradually stacked on weight and become more comfortable at tackle, Solder showed improvement late in the season but is still very much a project in the works, lacks the core strength to handle power and will require patience in the pros. Compares favorably to Robert Gallery, although he does have longer levers.

ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton) 2nd-rated OT; 18th overall

Pass Protection: Possesses good length and natural athleticism. Light on his feet and can shuffle-and-mirror to stay in front of rushers. Possesses the lateral mobility to redirect and recover against double moves. Does a nice job of locking on with long arms and controlling rushers once in position. However, can get into trouble with initial set. Does not always get great depth with first step which can cause him to turn shoulders to try and recover against quicker rushers. Anchor is good and can sink hips to recover against traditional bull-rush attempts once in position. However, can be rocked back on occasion by effective speed-to-power moves when not balanced.

Run Blocking: Displays a quick first step and gets into sound initial position. Possesses more of an inline power base than expected for a player his height. Does a nice job of generating leverage at the point of attack. Also keeps feet moving upon contact to get movement on defenders. Displays the lateral quickness to hook the edge and can seal 3-techniques from the backside. Makes a smooth transition when climbing to the second level to cut off LBs. Moves very easily in space and can adjust on the move to cover up targets.

Awareness: Possesses very good football intelligence. Appears to have more awareness as a run blocker than in pass pro at this point. Assignment sound in the run game. Does a nice job of quickly indentifying and covering up targets when pulling around edge or down the line. Quickly reads and reacts to blitzes from the second and third level of defense. Can be a quarter-count late recognizing defensive line movement on occasion.

Toughness: Appears to have very good core strength. Aggressive and fires off the ball. Works to the whistle to sustain blocks. Will finish if given the opportunity. Flashes a mean streak but would like to see it with more consistency.

Intangibles: Committed both on and off the field. Above-average student and on pace to graduate in December with a Biology degree. Even-keel personality and well-liked by teammates and coaches. Earned Special Teams Scout Award as a true freshman for his effort and commitment during practices.

Drafttek (Longball) 4th-rated OLT; 28th overall

Many talent evaluators have Nate Solder of Colorado ranked higher than old Long Ball – but maybe they haven’t watched and graded as many of the Buffalos games as I have. Even though Solder is taller than other LOT prospects (6’8", 319 lbs), his arms are a full inch shorter – but that doesn’t keep him from holding. Colorado ran a spread offense which allowed him to utilize his mass in "shielding" type blocks – Solder is a "waist-bender" and plays too tall, which limits his leverage and balance.

Solder did his high school work at tight end and linebacker, gaining 30 pounds in 2008 and moving from tight end to tackle in spring practice for the Buffaloes. Of all the draft-eligible tackles I've studied this season, Solder has the furthest to go from a technique standpoint. With his frame, he engulfed defenders at the college level without utilizing proper footwork and that won’t cut it at the NFL level. While Solder's footwork puts him in place to succeed -- especially at the second level -- he lurches and chases during pass protection, especially in the back half of a pass rush. He loses the battle to inside moves by edge rushers due to a pronounced outside step. He doesn't always stay engaged while run blocking, as he will slide off defenders when he's trying to get a push inside. He's also going to have a problem with quicker and more talented NFL ends getting under his pads (if it happened in college, it will happen at the next level).

Solder does exhibit agility moving forward – he will probably be more successful in a zone blocking scheme due to his quickness and ability to get to the next level. However, a team that requires pure power (not defined as 21 Combine reps) and advanced technique will find that he needs to be "coached up" and will be a work in progress. (Update: Solder weighed 307 at Colorado's Pro Day, 12 lbs down from his Combine weight - this may concern teams wondering if he could add or maintain his weight during the season.)

Solder started draft season as the top-rated OT on many, if not most, boards, and did nothing to alter his status at the Senior Bowl or at the Combine. Nevertheless, his stock is slipping a little bit as the draft draws near. His upside is huge, but it appears scouting types are starting to question whether he can consistently handle power rushers who have more speed than he was used to going up against in college. Moreover, I'm hearing more and more fears expressed about his height--i.e., that it will allow him to consistently be out-leveraged against shorter (and more powerful) NFL defensive ends.

The uncertainty surrounding him, paired with his immense potential, create an intriguing (dare I say maddening?) prospect. I certainly think he'll be rated higher by NFL warrooms than the 61st best player status that Bunting and Lande assign to him. I'd say that Solder is a good fit in the third tier of the first round--between picks 21-30. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to see him go earlier. Like Anthony Castonzo and Derek Sherrod, he seems to be a good candidate for the Cowboys only if they trade down in round one.

That's where I'll put him: in the mysterious "trade-down" category.

Next up: we end our look at offensive players with Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi

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