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Tackles land new deals as position's landscape shifts

Nate Solder was the big fish of free agency when it came to offensive tackles.

The former Patriots lineman landed in New York with the Giants thanks to a four-year, $62 million contract. But if we rank the league's tackles by five tiers, with the first being the highest and fifth the lowest, Solder lands somewhere in the second tier. He's not elite, but he's above average.

Solder's contract, which made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history, said differently -- that is, until this past Friday arrived.

The day became Franchise Tackle Friday when Titans left tackle Taylor Lewansigned a new five-year, $80 million deal, the new highest in history for the position. Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews received his new payday less than an hour later to the tune of five years and $75 million, marking the holiday for the glory-deprived players.

The Seahawks made it a tackle trifecta over the weekend when they signed veteran Duane Brown to a three-year, $36.5 million contract.

What does all of this mean? Let's break it down.

Thousands of bolo ties

Lewan celebrated his contract with a big cowboy hat, an off-white suit and a bolo tie. Reprising the role of the Boss Hogg of Dukes of Hazzard fame (not to be confused with theĀ Houston hip-hop collective led by rapper Slim Thug), Lewan strutted into his press conference with the regality of a tackle who just had his future with one team secured.

But what does this mean for the state of the position in the NFL?

We're in a new era of sorts, thanks to the retirement of Browns tackle and future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. The starting left tackle position for the AFC Pro Bowl squad is open for the first time in a decade, and Lewan appears to have the inside track on winning it. He's been as solid (and ferocious) as they come, and with Marcus Mariota taking another step toward being Tennessee's legitimate franchise quarterback in 2017, the Titans have two key figures entrenched at their positions. Lewan was signed to do his job, but also to keep the face of the franchise's jersey clean.

He can be expected to hold down the spot atop the salary list for a while, with most of the rest of the league's premier left tackles locked into multi-year deals. The most likely next tackle to see a bump in pay is Indianapolis' Anthony Castonzo, if the Colts deem him worthy, but that day won't come until 2020. And for the first time in this decade, the title of the league's best left tackle is available to be seized.

Vindicating a draft pick

Matthews has been a reliable left tackle, but battled injuries early after being selected sixth overall in the 2014 draft. It's hurt his overall reputation in that he hasn't yet ascended into the general consciousness' elite status. His paycheck will help boost that, as will another season of offensive success for the Falcons.

But right now, when one ponders who is among the league's elite at the position, the mind tends to drift toward Washington's Trent Williams, or Dallas' Tyron Smith. They both rank fourth or lower after the aforementioned's new contracts, with Williams making an average of $13.6 million per season, and Smith locked into a deal that doles out an average of $12.2 million.

So is Matthews truly worth $15 million per year? Conventional wisdom says yes, in the fact the Falcons landed in the middle of the league in QB hits allowed last season with 87. With Matthews (and center Alex Mack) leading the way, the Falcons are keeping Matt Ryan upright at at least an average rate. That's worth paying top-three money to what's considered the most important offensive line position, especially when that player was approaching free agency -- even if that same player hasn't been considered to be in the same tier as a Thomas or Williams.

A solid night's sleep

Seahawks GM John Schneider has traversed an interesting, if not pivotal offseason. He's bid adieu to multiple former key contributors to his franchise's efforts, while also making personnel moves that could be seen as dike-plugging more than foundation-setting.

Which brings us to Brown. Seattle desperately needed help along the offensive line in 2017, lining up franchise quarterback Russell Wilson behind a group that tended to act as a sieve. Part of this was due to an early injury to starting left tackle George Fant, and also due to younger players not developing into reliable starters as quickly as imagined. Schneider swung an in-season deal for the disgruntled Texans tackle to solidify the left tackle position for at least the 2017 season, which was needed as much to keep Wilson healthy as it was to help revive a slumbering rushing attack.

Nine months later, Schneider is ensuring he doesn't have to toss and turn at night about the position, securing the 32-year-old Brown for three years in what is likely his last hefty deal in his career. How smart that proves to be will be seen in the years after 2018, but for now, it fixes a problem that will surface again by the time we enter the next decade.

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