Before the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period last month, the New England Patriots opted to use the franchise tag to keep left guard Joe Thuney from hitting unrestricted free agency. Thuney, of course, was coming off an impressive four-year stretch during which he started 74 of a possible 74 games and helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls — all while developing into one of the most reliable interior offensive linemen in all of football.
Despite that and the application of a franchise tag tender that he quickly signed, Thuney’s future with the Patriots is far from set in stone. After all, the tag keeps him in the fold only for one season and is valued at $14.78 million — a notable sum considering that New England currently has only $1.1 million in salary cap space available, per Miguel Benzan. That said, the team does have options to reduce Thuney’s cap impact for the 2020 season.
The preferred avenue to travel would likely be reaching a long-term contract that would keep the 27-year-old in the fold beyond this year and also bring his cap number down to a more manageable level. However, talks between the Patriots and Thuney’s camp have reportedly not gone anywhere so far: according to ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss, “the sides haven’t been close to an extension” one month after the franchise tag window closed.
The fact that negotiations have not produced any results at this point makes Thuney a player to watch this week. After all, the NFL draft is coming up later this week and the Patriots a) may need up to $3 million in cap space to sign their draft class, and b) have a 63-gap pick between their first-round selection and the next pick in the late third round. Combining all this makes Thuney a prime candidate to be traded later this week.
From a resource-perspective, the move certainly would make sense with no extension on the horizon: Thuney’s franchise tag number is not guaranteed, which means that a trade would free up $14.03 million in salary cap space after accounting for the league’s Top-51 offseason rule that (only a team’s 51 most expensive contracts are counting versus the cap). The second-team All-Pro also should yield at least a pick in the second-round range.
That said, Thuney getting traded would certainly be a loss for an offensive line that also had to deal with the retirement of assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia earlier this offseason and saw center Ted Karras depart in free agency. Add the uncertain medical situation of center David Andrews, who missed all of 2019 after being diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs, and you would add further questions to a line that already is somewhat in flux.
On the other hand, the Patriots do have invested in potential replacement options over the course of the last year. New England placed the original fifth-round restricted free agent tender on Jermaine Eluemunor, who was acquired via trade last September, and also picked Hjalte Froholdt in the fourth round of last the 2019 draft. Both men could be seen as starting-caliber replacements in case Thuney left the team at one point.
While we do not yet know how the Patriots evaluate this situation, and whether or not Thuney is indeed a candidate to be traded, we do know two things for a fact:
1.) The two sides have until July 15 to reach a contract extension, or else Thuney would play the season on the franchise tag.
2.) If Thuney plays the year under the tag and departs via unrestricted free agency next year, he would factor into the compensatory draft picks formula for 2022 — possibly earning New England a third-round pick in two years.
As can be seen, a lot of factors are in play. The situation surrounding the Patriots’ starting left guard therefore remains a fluid one.