Don’t look now folks, but the Patriots offensive line is starting to get some much-deserved respect — particularly on the interior.
According to PFF, the Patriots are deploying the NFL’s third and seventh-highest graded guards in Shaq Mason (injury aside) and Joe Thuney, as well as the league’s seventh-highest graded center in David Andrews. And, the numbers are there to back it up. According to Football Outsiders, New England’s offensive line is ranked third in adjusted line yards and second in adjusted sack rate so far this season.
As pointed out in last Sunday’s column, much of the Patriots’ success can be attributed to the consistency that their interior trio has achieved over the past three seasons. The team’s week-nine victory over the Packers marked just the third time since the start of the 2016 season that the entire trio was not active for game day, as Shaq Mason missed the contest with a calf injury.
The Patriots took the first step towards long-term solidification of the unit with the signing of David Andrews to a three-year, $9 million extension last May — a deal that might be among the best values in football. Then came the news in late August of this year that the organization had struck a deal with Shaq Mason and his management team to keep the talented guard in Foxborough through 2023. The deal — which is worth $45 million (up to $50 million with incentives) and included $23.5 million fully guaranteed at signing — was another home run for the organization, as the $9 million per-year average represented a discount given the recent explosion of the interior offensive line market.
Naturally, that brings us to left guard Joe Thuney. A former North Carolina State standout currently in his third season after being selected in the third round (78th overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft, Thuney and his team will be eligible to negotiate a contract after the completion of this season. While it certainly would not be a surprise to see him play out the final season of his rookie contract without an extension, Thuney appears to fit the mold of past and current Patriots players who have signed early with the organization.
Signing an extension with a season remaining on a player’s rookie contract has benefits for both sides. The player receives a large amount of cash sooner, his injury risk is nullified, and he is provided with more long-term security in a environment with which he’s become comfortable. The team generally receives a slightly better contract figure than if they were bidding for the player’s services on the open market, and they are afforded more cap flexibility on the back end of the deal because the prorated portions of large bonuses begin on the year the contract is signed.
Currently, the Patriots have seven players who signed extensions before the start of the final season of their rookie or undrafted rookie free agent contracts:
- Tom Brady - Drafted in 2000, signed a four-year extension in August, 2002.
- Rob Gronkowski - Drafted in 2010, signed a six-year extension signed in June, 2012.
- Ryan Allen - 2013 UDFA, signed a three-year extension in June, 2015.
- James White - Drafted in 2014, signed a three-year extension in April, 2017.
- David Andrews - 2015 UDFA, signed a three-year extension in May, 2017.
- Joe Cardona - Drafted in 2015, signed a four-year extension in June, 2018.
- Shaq Mason - Drafted in 2015, signed a five-year extension in August, 2018.
Heading into 2019, Thuney will be carrying an estimated cap hit of $2,268,357 after qualifying for the Proven Performance Escalator (PPE) — a provision in the CBA that bumps the fourth year rookie salary of a player drafted after the second round up to the level of that year’s lowest restricted free agency tender. Players can earn the PPE by participating in 35% of offensive or defensive snaps in two of his first three seasons, or by participating in 35% of all of those snaps over his first three years.
There are numerous factors that go into the valuation of a player’s potential contract extension. The major components are talent, age, health, position, and the current league salary cap in the year that the deal is to be signed. That last one is big. As pointed out this week by BSJ’s Miguel Benzan, if the salary cap rises to $190 million in 2019 — which many anticipate — that would mean a 22% increase over just three seasons. No one is more cognizant of the impact of league salary cap increases than NFL agents.
From a talent perspective, no one would argue that Thuney’s skill set rivals Shaq Mason’s, but it has been consistently underrated in his time in New England. The Dayton,OH area native — who turns 26 in a couple weeks — is a strong, intelligent player who has improved with each season. But, his most impressive asset is his durability. In fact, not only has Thuney started every game since becoming a Patriot in 2016, but he has missed just nine regular season snaps in his career thus far.
When attempting to set a reasonable floor for which to project Thuney’s contract value, a good starting point is the contract that Houston Texans guard Zach Fulton signed this past March. Fulton — who averaged 11.5 starts per season in his four years in Kansas City — secured a four-year, $28 million deal with $13 million fully guaranteed at signing. Thuney is clearly a superior player, so the expectation is he’ll get more than $7 million per year, but things really start getting wild when you venture past Fulton on overthecap.com’s current left guard contracts.
Next on the list is Denver’s Ron Leary, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with $18.65 fully guaranteed at the age of 27 last offseason. From there, Cleveland’s Joel Bitonio checks in at $10 million per year, followed by Tampa’s Ali Marpet at $10.825 million per year. There is simply no way New England is going to pay Thuney more than Mason, so where does that leave us? Well, here’s a possibility:
This deal — worth $32,425,000 in new money — would give Thuney a $9 million signing bonus as part of the $17 million in full guarantees, and a first-three-year cash total of $20.5 million. The total value of the contract would be $34.5 million, with an average annual value of $8.445 million over the four new years of the extension. $500,000 in per-game roster bonuses would start in 2020 and run through the remainder of the contract.
Essentially this projected deal is the same as the four-year, $29 million contract that Jets guard Brian Winters signed in 2017, but adjusted for an estimated 2019 league salary cap of $190 million.
Too hefty? Not rich enough? Perhaps we’ll gain more clarity in March.