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2020 NFL free agency: Joe Thuney may not become the only Patriots offensive lineman to command top dollar

Related: Patriots will reportedly start talks with Devin McCourty, Phillip Dorsett at the combine

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New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While Tom Brady steals most of the headlines when it comes to the New England Patriots’ free agency class, he is far from the only important member of the team to see his contract expire on March 18. Two starters along its 2019 offensive line, for example, are also headed for the open market: left guard Joe Thuney and center Ted Karras are among a group of 16 Patriots scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next month.

While the Patriots could opt to keep Thuney in the fold by using the franchise tag on him, the most realistic outcome is the 27-year-old testing the market; and if recent reports are to be believed, it should be a healthy one for him: according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, the former third-round draft pick could reset the market for interior offensive linemen in March and possibly command a contract with a value of up to $14-15 million per season.

For comparison, the currently highest paid guard in football — the Philadelphia EaglesBrandon Brooks — signed a deal worth an average of $14.1 million annually back in November. There appears to be a chance that Thuney exceeds that considering his development over the last four years in combination with his durability and background in a winning organization. That price, however, will likely be out of New England’s range.

The team therefore is looking at a scenario in which it might lose an offensive lineman to become the highest paid in football at his respective position for the third straight year: in 2018, left tackle Nate Solder signed a free agency contract with the New York Giants that pays him $15.5 million per year; in 2019, his short-term successor Trent Brown joined the then-Oakland Raiders on a contract worth $16.5 million annually.

If Thuney indeed leaves, one logical next step for the Patriots would be to set their sights on locking up Ted Karras. While the 26-year-old started at center last year after David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs, he has experience playing all three spots along the interior line and has proven his value to the club ever since joining it as a sixth-round draft pick back in 2016. However, re-signing Karras may not be as easy as originally anticipated.

After all, according to Howe, his “market has also been hot.” While it remains to be seen what this exactly means in terms of actual numbers, one that has been floating around is $10 million per year — a big sum for a player that started only 21 of a possible 74 games during his time in New England. However, Karras has shown an ability to function at the starting level both at guard and at center. Teams certainly see value in this.

If Karras’ market indeed develops like that and he ends up getting paid as a top-20 interior offensive lineman in the league, the Patriots might have to enter next season with two open spots along their starting O-line and two major questions:

1.) Will David Andrews be ready to return to the starting lineup after missing all of 2019?

2.) Will Hjalte Froholdt be ready to fill the vacant left guard spot after also being out for the entire 2019 season following a preseason shoulder injury?

There appears to be optimism surrounding both situations in Foxborough — Andrews said that he “should be good to go” next season, Froholdt is reportedly on his way to participate in the Patriots’ offseason workout program — but until both men return to the practice fields, questions will remain. The same can be said about the landing spots for Thuney and Karras, although it seems increasingly likely New England will not be it.