The Patriots have a number of difficult decisions facing them this offseason, but one of the biggest and most underrated will be what they decide to do with free agent left guard Joe Thuney. Thuney ranks as the second best interior offensive lineman on the market according to both Pro Football Focus and CBS Sports, and ranks as the second or third best Patriots free agent depending on where you look. In other words, Thuney is arguably the Patriots most important free agent other than Tom Brady this offseason.
Thuney emerged as one of the best offensive lineman in the NFL last season. He gave up just one sack, accumulated zero penalties and garnered second-team AP All-Pro honors as a result. With a stellar season like that and two Super Bowl championships to boot, Thuney is sure to be a hot commodity on the free agent market. It’s looking increasingly likely that New England could be outbid.
The Patriots already signed right guard Shaq Mason to a 5-year, $50 million contract in August of 2018. It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick would be willing to invest roughly one eighth of his cap space on two guards. If New England can’t afford to keep Thuney, they may want to consider slapping the franchise tag on him and looking for a trade partner to maximize their return.
The franchise tag number for offensive lineman hasn’t yet been made public, but various projections have the cost ranging from just under $15 million to just over $16 million. Unfortunately, the number is all-encompassing and does not differentiate between interior and exterior offensive lineman despite the price tag being much higher for the latter of the two. The top paid guards in the league only make around $14 million per year, which makes franchising Thuney at a number one or two million above that a tough sell.
The number may ultimately be trivial if a trade partner is found who is willing to renegotiate with Thuney and sign him to a long-term extension, but it’s going to be difficult for New England to commit to that number in the meantime. The Patriots would have to keep enough cap space open to cover Thuney’s franchise number until a trade is made which could severely limit them in the free agent market. In an offseason where it will be vital to find offensive weapons to surround Tom Brady with, that may not be the easiest restriction to work around.
Ultimately, it looks like the Patriots only choice is to let Thuney sign elsewhere this offseason. Their hands are tied in a number of different knots. Even if New England’s path to franchising and trading Thuney was a bit clearer, the team hasn’t tagged a non-kicker since 2012 when they used it on Wes Welker. Welker and Bill Belichick had a notorious falling out shortly thereafter and New England hasn’t used a tag on anyone other than Stephen Gostkowski (2015) ever since.
The only way it would make sense for the Patriots to franchise tag Thuney is if they were convinced Tom Brady was leaving. In that case, the team would have a bit more freedom with how they’d like to use their cap room and would likely have an increased desire for the additional draft compensation they could acquire by trading Thuney. The only problem is that the franchise tag deadline comes well before the start of free agency and before Brady’s decision to sign elsewhere can be officially made. However, that doesn’t mean the Patriots won’t be aware of Brady’s intentions before then. If New England does slap the tag on Thuney, it may be able to serve as a red herring for what’s to come.
The NFL recently pushed back the window to franchise tag players by two days. Teams will now have from February 27th to March 12th to decide if they want to tag any of their impending free agents. The NFL’s tampering period begins on March 16th with free agency officially opening at 4 p.m. ET on March 18th.
Photo: (Steve Mitchell – USA Today Sports)