One of the more shocking moves of the Patriots' offseason — you know, besides that QB in Florida — was the team's decision to place the franchise tag on guard Joe Thuney for $14.781 million.
We've made no secret of our fondness for Thuney's play in recent years. He has steadily built himself into an All-Pro-type player, especially off a 2019 season in which he was virtually flawless:
Joe Thuney (99.2%): Not that he slacked off any other season, but he picked the right time to have a sterling year with just 8 pressures (1.1 percent) and four bad runs (0.9 percent) allowed. Should have been a Pro Bowler but was a deserved second-team All-Pro. Simply a phenomenally consistent performer who will get paid handsomely this offseason. A terrific player.
There's no question Thuney deserved to get paid, and he likely would have supplanted Brandon Brooks ($14.05 million AAV) at the highest-paid guard in the league with teams like the Dolphins and Jets salivating over Thuney.
But not by the Patriots.
They had already given right guard Shaq Mason an extension in 2018 that made him one of the highest-paid guards. Sure, Bill Belichick will pay top of the market for players, normally when forced to (Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty), but not multiple players in the same group.
The year before Mankins was traded, only Sebastian Vollmer made decent money on the line. Nate Solder was on his rookie contract, and Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell didn't make much. Now? The Patriots are heavily invested in Thuney, Mason, Marcus Cannon and David Andrews.
New England is fifth in the league in offensive line spending, and the only other position group higher is the defensive backs at $55.4 million. The offensive line makes just about as much as the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and defensive line combined.
Plus, as great a player as Thuney is, he's still a guard. Even NFL coaches will tell you that, like running backs, you should be able to find a passable guard at just about any time, especially if you've already found one (Mason).
So it was a surprise to see the Patriots use nearly $15 million of their cap space on Thuney this offseason. The way it was explained to me was, that money had been earmarked for Tom Brady and when he left, Belichick thought using the space on Thuney would be a good investment since a tag-and-trade (like Dee Ford and Frank Clark the year before) brought compensation that was better than a compensatory pick. But Thuney is not a pass rusher, and the Patriots have not actively sought out a trade — their MO to keep leverage is to have other teams come to them. No takers so far.
Now, the clock is ticking on the Patriots. The team has until July 15th to reach a contract extension with Thuney, or else his cap number will hold until the conclusion of the season.
Everyone knows the Patriots are up against the salary cap. NFLPA records have them at an NFL-worst $650,989 in cap space before Cam Newton's contract, which is expected to leave them with less than $300,000. The team is going to need somewhere between $3 million and $5 million in cap space just to function with the normal roster transactions during the season — before you entertain the thought of trading for another player to help the team.
Can the Patriots get some more space in other ways? Sure. They could release/trade the likes of Mohamed Sanu, Rex Burkhead, Marcus Cannon and Jermaine Elumunor, and pick up about $14 million in space.
But the easiest way for the Patriots to set their cap right and to build momentum towards next season is to do something about Thuney's number: either via an extension, or trade him at some point. A look at the current situation on both fronts, and how this might play out: