Before the start of the NFL’s legal tampering period in March, the New England Patriots opted to use the franchise tag to keep left guard Joe Thuney from hitting unrestricted free agency. Thuney was heading towards free agency coming off an impressive four-year stretch during which he started all 74 possible games and helped the Patriots win two Super Bowls — all while becoming one of the most reliable interior offensive linemen in football.
Despite that and the application of a franchise tag tender that he quickly signed, however, Thuney’s future with the Patriots is not set in stone. After all, the tag keeps him in the fold only for one season and is valued at $14.78 million. Considering that New England currently has only $1.1 million in salary cap space available, according to Miguel Benzan, this number is certainly noteworthy even though the team does have options to reduce it.
The best-case outcome for both sides would probably be a long-term contract extension 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. Talks between the Patriots and Thuney’s camp have reportedly not gone anywhere, however, which in turn may make door number two an attractive alternative from New England’s perspective: trading the second-team All-Pro.
What are the arguments for or against such a rather drastic move? Let’s break it down.
Why the Patriots should trade Joe Thuney
The contract situation: As noted above, New England currently is only $1.1 million under the salary cap, and will need to create additional room to a) sign its upcoming draft class as well as rookie free agents, and b) set themselves up for any potential in-season investments that need to be made. Trading Thuney would instantly add his entire current salary cap hit to the Patriots’ books again: the team’s salary cap space would jump to approximately $15 million — a considerable sum that would give the team far more wiggle room. It would also eliminate the need to negotiate a new contract with him next spring, considering that Thuney is currently headed for unrestricted free agency again in 2021.
Depth behind him: The Patriots have invested in potential replacement options for the former third-round draft pick over the course of the last year. New England picked Hjalte Froholdt in the fourth round of the 2019 draft and also acquired Jermaine Eluemunor via trade from the Baltimore Ravens in late August. Froholdt missed his rookie campaign on injured reserve and Eluemunor was little more than a depth option last season, but both men could be seen as starting-caliber replacements in case Thuney left the team at one point.
Draft capital: Thuney might be most valuable from the Patriots’ perspective at the moment as a potential trade chip. While the fact that he is currently on a costly one-year contract might scare some suitors away, his status as one of the better guards in football and as a reliable player with a championship pedigree cannot be denied. In turn, there is a chance that he could field as high a selection as a second-rounder in this week’s draft. New England, of course, does currently not own a pick in Round Two after having moving its own at last year’s trade deadline to acquire Mohamed Sanu.
Trade value: Even though his contractual status beyond the 2020 season is currently unclear, Thuney’s trade value will never be higher than now for the Patriots. He is still only 27 years old and coming off the best season if his career, during which he gained national recognition. With the draft coming up, it seems to be now or never for New England to make a move involving its starting left guard.
Why the Patriots should not trade Joe Thuney
Reliability and performance: The Patriots drafted Thuney in the third round back in 2016, and he quickly carved out a role as the team’s starting left guard. He never looked back. As noted above, he went on to appear in 74 of a possible 74 games over his first four years in the NFL, helped New England win two championships, and rarely left the field — all while improving each season and becoming the team’s most reliable blocker by 2019. While offensive linemen are often treated as a dime a dozen, a player of this caliber and what he means to the Patriots’ offensive operation cannot easily be replaced.
Status of the offensive line: While reliability is one of Thuney’s defining traits, it is one not necessarily shared by the other offensive linemen currently on the Patriots’ roster. Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn appeared in only nine of a possible 36 games over the first two seasons of his career, while center David Andrews missed all of 2019 after blood clots in his lungs were discovered. Add the fact that long-time position coach Dante Scarnecchia announced his retirement earlier this offseason, and you get an offensive line that very well might be in flux. Subtracting Thuney would further weaken the unit and its stability.
Long-term considerations: If the Patriots hold onto Thuney this week instead of trading him, they will still have until July 15 to reach a contract extension with him. If the two sides can eventually come to an agreement — three months is a long period of time in the NFL to reach one — New England would have locked down its left guard position for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the team would give its new starting quarterback (be it Jarrett Stidham or somebody else) a second-team All-Pro at the left guard position to line up behind.
Salary cap considerations: The main reason for potentially trading Thuney this week is his uncertain contractual status in combination with his comparatively hefty salary cap hit and the Patriots’ challenging financial situation. That said, there are other ways to create short-term cap relief that do not involve moving on from an established player just entering his prime. New England could extend other impactful contracts, for example, or restructure deals such as Mohamed Sanu’s.