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2020 NFL free agency: Don’t count on the Patriots using the franchise tag to keep Joe Thuney in the fold

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Related: Getting an early start on contract communication the smart thing to do for the Patriots and Tom Brady

New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Between David Andrews missing the entire year due to blood clots in his lungs, Isaiah Wynn spending eight weeks on injured reserve, and inconsistent performances across the board, the New England Patriots’ offensive line had a difficult 2019 season. That being said, the unit did have some positive moments as well: it did get better as the year went along, and also saw one of its starting members play his best season as a pro — all while in a contract year.

Needless to say that left guard Joe Thuney will become a very wealthy man soon: the 27-year-old, who led the Patriots in offensive snaps yet again and started all 17 of their games this season, is scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in mid-March for the first time in his career. Given his development over his four years since being drafted by New England in the third round and his championship pedigree, he is expected to generate a solid market.

For the Patriots, who are currently expected to have around $29.2 million in salary cap space according to PatsCap’s Miguel Benzan, this presents a difficult situation: Will they be able to afford their most consistent offensive lineman from a year ago while also having enough resources to bring back the rest of their free agency class, one that includes quarterback Tom Brady and defensive captain Devin McCourty?

Given those circumstances, it would not be a surprise to see Thuney eventually leave New England to become one of the highest paid guards in all of football — one challenging the $14.1 million per year that the Philadelphia EaglesBrandon Brooks is receiving on his current contract. That being said, the Patriots do have a tool to bring him back into the fold for at least one season while working on a potential extension: the franchise tag.

The tag is essentially a one-year contract that pays a player a fully guaranteed salary, with the value being dependent on the player’s position and the specific tag used:

  • Non-exclusive franchise tag: Worth the average of the top five salaries at a player’s position in the past five years, or current percent of his 2019 salary, whichever is greater. The player is able to negotiate with other teams; if the current one declines to match an incoming offer, it will receive two first-round draft picks as compensation. The non-exclusive tag is the most popular one.
  • Exclusive franchise tag: Worth the average of the top five salaries at a player’s position in the past year, or 120 percent of his current salary, whichever is greater. The player is unable to negotiate with other teams.
  • Transition tag: Worth the average of the top ten salaries at a player’s position in the past year, or 120 percent of his current salary, whichever is greater. The player is able to negotiate with other teams; his current one has seven days to match an incoming offer but will not get any compensation if it declines to do so.

So, what does all that mean for Thuney and the Patriots? Putting all the available information into account and given his expected franchise ($14.92 million, non-exclusive) and transition ($13.63 million) numbers (via CBS Sports’ Joel Corry), it seems unlikely that New England will use the tag on Thuney: too big would be his cap hit, especially in relation to the team’s projected salary cap situation and list of free agents-to-be.

The most likely road traveled by the two parties therefore is expected to be a familiar one: Thuney hitting the open market to gather offers, before returning to New England to see whether or not the team will be able to bring a competitive counter-offer forward. That last part happening seems unlikely, however, unless the offensive lineman’s market does not develop as well as it is projected to.