The New England Patriots have been busy before the NFL’s legal tampering period was even kicked off at noon on Monday. Not only did they re-sign two of their team captains about to enter free agency — safety Devin McCourty and special teamer Matthew Slater — and place the original fifth-round tender on guard Jermaine Eluemunor, they also made the rather surprising decision to use the franchise tag on starting left guard Joe Thuney.
What does this mean for the Patriots and Thuney? Let’s find out.
Thuney hits the Patriots’ books with $14.78 million — for now
The NFL announced the exact franchise tag numbers earlier on Monday, and the offensive line positions — there it no distinction between the different spots along the line when it comes to the value of the tag — were listed at roughly $14.78 million. This means that Thuney will hit the Patriots’ books with this number beginning today, even though the team does not officially have to be under the $198.2 million salary cap until the start of the new league year on Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET.
However, this also means that the team has only about 48 hours to either extend Thuney to lower his cap impact or to find a trade partner in order to put itself in a good position with the “official” portions of free agency on the horizon. After all, New England is only $5.41 million under the salary cap threshold at the moment, according to Miguel Benzan.
New England may still opt to trade Thuney...
When they made the move official, the Patriots’ statement said that using the franchise tag would allow “both sides more time to try to reach the goal of a long-term agreement.” Despite that sentiment, however, a trade still remains an option depending on how the other dominoes fall over the coming hours. The chances of him playing on a one-year, $14.78 million deal for New England in 2020 appear to be minimal, after all, while his market is projected to be a vital one even with him currently under the tag.
As a result, the Patriots might be able to recoup the second-round draft pick they lost as a result of the Mohamed Sanu trade last year. Or they might be in a position to add a player at a position of need — think: offensive skill positions — in exchange for Thuney. While anything seems possible, there is one thing we do know for sure: New England trading the 27-year-old would only be possible if Thuney has signed the tag at that point.
...or keep him to shore up the offensive line
New England drafted Thuney in the third round of the 2016 draft and he immediately became the team’s starter at left guard — a role he held throughout his tenure with the team so far. Along the way, he improved every single season and also became one of the most durable players in all of football: Thuney started 74 of a possible 74 games, and rarely left the field. At one point between Week 13 of the 2017 season and Week 2 of the 2019 season he played 2,004 consecutive offensive snaps.
Keeping him in the fold would therefore be big for an offensive line that already has to move forward without its position coach, Dante Scarnecchia, who announced his retirement earlier during the offseason. Furthermore, the Patriots might see some additional changes at the center position: David Andrews appears to be on his way to return from a year-long stint on injured reserve after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs last August.
Keeping Thuney and adding Andrews to the equation — as well as second-year offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste — would give New England one of the better O-lines in all of football. The projected top lineup for 2020 would look as follows if that were the case:
LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Joe Thuney — C David Andrews — RG Shaq Mason — RT Marcus Cannon
With the exception of former first-round draft pick Wynn, who entered the starting line in 2019 after the free agency departure of Trent Brown, this would be the same line as the one that won Super Bowls 51 and 53.
The chips have started falling into place
No matter what New England ends up doing, putting the franchise tag to use in order to keep Thuney in the fold was the first of the Patriots’ moves on Monday and it potentially set the stage for others to follow.
After all, the decision comes with a hefty price tag that would significantly limit the team’s ability to make any follow-up transactions during free agency. New England should therefore be expected to try to create some additional salary cap space soon — either by parting ways with more expensive players on the roster, or by extending veterans such as linebacker Dont’a Hightower or cornerback Stephon Gilmore to lower their cap hits.
The Patriots are still in a position to re-sign Tom Brady
Thuney currently takes up a big portion of New England’s salary cap, and with Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater also recently re-signing the question is valid whether or not the team still has enough room to bring its biggest free agent back into the fold. The cap, however, is flexible and as noted above New England has numerous ways to make the picture look better and in turn more appealing for Brady — both in terms of a financial commitment towards him and potential upgrades on offense.
Franchise-tagging Thuney, whatever the long-term intentions may be, is not necessarily a definitive statement on Brady.