The New England Patriots selected offensive lineman Joe Thuney with the 78th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft and Thuney has started every single game at left guard. He was a strong contributor as a rookie, but reasonably still the weakest link on the line in his first season in the league.
In his second year, Thuney has made great strides and is no longer the weak link. In fact, he’s playing at such a high level that he should fairly draw comparisons to Patriots right guard Shaq Mason and how Mason emerged in the second half of his sophomore season.
Pro Football Focus grades every snap of every game and they have Thuney as one of the most improved sophomores of 2017 and the best guard from the 2016 draft class.
“Thuney’s development at offensive guard is unparalleled among the other guards in the 2016 draft class,” PFF writes, before adding, “A much-improved, new-look Thuney has emerged [in 2017]. After allowing 45 total pressures as a rookie, Thuney is on pace to allow 10 fewer pressures in 2017, leading to an 18.5-point increase in his pass block grade. Additionally, he has improved his run block grade from 50.5 to 74.8.
“Thuney’s 78.7 overall grade ranks No. 1 among all second-year offensive guards this season, including the four that bested him in 2016.”
Thuney’s grade increased from 52nd out of guards in 2016 to an impressive 16th in 2017 and he’s still climbing. Thuney hasn’t allowed a pressure in three of his past four games and his improvement comes roughly at the same time as Mason’s growth in 2016.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick addressed one specific play from the Broncos game that highlights Thuney’s growth, where Thuney pulled across the formation for a play fake to block Von Miller, allowing Rob Gronkowski to break free in the second level for a big gain.
“A lot of times the defensive end or the outside linebacker will kind of freeze for a second there while he has to figure out is it a run?,” Belichick said about Miller’s decision making. “Then it’s a pass and then the guard is kind of on him and he has to restart his pass rush, so that’s a play we’ve used in the past. Just mix up the protection a bit on a good edge player like Miller, but it’s a tough block for the guard to come across the formation and have to pass block on an outside rusher that he’s not usually used to blocking the majority of the game.
“It’s been the type of play that you can gain a little bit of an advantage on the defense but there’s also some degree of difficulty and margin for error because it’s a play that’s probably a once-a-game block for an offensive lineman.
“Joe did a good job on that play. It was good ball handling and faking I think caused Miller to slow down a little bit and hesitate and that gave Joe a chance to get on him. Joe did a good job in the game. He was singled up quite a bit in the protection. He gave us a solid performance.”
It’s clear that the coaching staff’s trust in Thuney grows on a weekly basis and for good reason. Thuney has risen to every challenge in front of him and excelled in recent weeks. Now there appears no limit for what Thuney could grow into as a premier left guard in the NFL.
Add in Mason’s continued high level of play and David Andrews’ production at center and it’s a fair argument to say that the Patriots have the best, young interior line in the NFL.
“On the one hand they’re young,” Belichick acknowledged about his offensive interior. “On the other hand they’ve played a lot of games and they’ve played a lot of games together and they’ve had a lot of practices together. The communication, the footwork, the technique, just kind of seeing things the same way with those guys has really been good. Dante [Scarnecchia] of course, has always done a great job with that group.
“Those three players in particular, two guys in their third year, one guy in his second year just have worked together and have improved individually and improved as a unit in their combination blocks, which there are so many of those on the offensive line. Their ability to handle twists, and blitzes, and stunts and things like that, they are hard to do but those guys do a good job. They work well together. I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”
If Thuney is able to follow the same trajectory of Mason and Andrews, both of whom rank at the top of the league at their respective positions, then the argument will be settled. The Patriots will have the best interior line in football, finally solving one of the biggest Achilles heels of the Patriots offense over the past decade.
The next trick will be for the Patriots to retain all of them. Andrews has his extension and Thuney is under contract through the 2019 season, but Mason will be entering his final year in 2018. Don’t be shocked if the Patriots find a way to retain the trio for the long term.