While all options still appear to be on the table, it seems likely that New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney will at least come close to unrestricted free agency again next spring: the team and the 27-year-old did not reach a contract extension before Wednesday’s franchise tag deadline, meaning that he will play the 2020 season under a one-year contract that cannot be extended until after the regular season — a point at which Thuney likely has little incentive to agree to a new pact, given that free agency will loom on the horizon.
This situation, in turn, creates a golden opportunity for the players currently behind Thuney on the depth chart: Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor, Najee Toran, and rookies Michael Onwenu and Dustin Woodard will all — unless the injury bug bites New England’s offensive line again — spend the upcoming campaign either as backup interior linemen, on the practice squad, or off the team entirely. Their respective statuses have yet to be determined, but Thuney’s uncertain future has opened a door for them in 2021.
What do they do to go through it? It’s easy: show the Patriots over the next eight months that they are able to do a comparable job in the starting lineup at a fraction of the cost. Thuney is one of the better left guards in the NFL, and replacing him with one of the players listed above would likely be a downgrade, but the performance-cost-ratio could still work in their favor compared to a soon-to-be 28-year-old who could become the league’s highest paid players at his position.
So with that all said, let’s meet our contestants (and, no, left tackle Isaiah Wynn is not one of them as we have explained in detail earlier this offseason):
Hjalte Froholdt: A fourth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2019, Froholdt established himself as a serious option to earn a backup role at guard last year — despite some rookie growing pains. Still, he was on the field for 215 of a possible 294 preseason snaps (73.1%) and likely would have seen even more action if not for a shoulder injury that eventually forced New England to place him on season-ending injured reserve.
Jermaine Eluemunor: After New England acquired him via trade last year, Eluemunor appeared in 10 of 17 games in as a backup lineman. Receiving occasional playing time at both guard and tackle, but never proving himself much more than an emergency option, he was on the field for just 29 of 1,210 offensive snaps (2.4%) — primarily as a run-blocker in late-game situations. Still, the Patriots put the original fifth-round restricted free agency tender on him earlier this year.
Najee Toran: Despite a short stint on the San Francisco 49ers’ active roster early on during his 2018 rookie campaign, Toran has yet to appear in an actual regular season or playoff contest as a pro: he spent the majority of his first year in the NFL on the 49ers’ developmental roster as well as all of his second on New England’s. Compared to the Patriots’ other interior linemen, he seems to lack the upside necessary to earn a starting role one day.
Michael Onwenu: The Patriots brought Onwenu aboard in the sixth round of this year’s draft as a developmental guard option. His college career started on both the offensive and the defensive lines before he was able to carve out a starting role as the team’s right guard during his sophomore campaign — one he held throughout the next three years as well. In New England, Onwenu will have to improve his versatility and run blocking to have a shot at a backup role this year and a starting gig in 2020.
Dustin Woodard: Woodard was also drafted by the Patriots this year: the team spent a seventh-rounder on the Memphis product. Over his four seasons at the school, he went on to start games at all three interior positions and set the program record for most starts by an offensive lineman with 52. While he lacks the athletic upside of Onwenu or Eluemunor’s experience, Woodard has proven himself a reliable player.
When looking at the list, the two names that stand out are Froholdt and Eluemunor. Both were comparatively highly drafted and have shown some flashes so far in their careers. If they can continue their development and earn the coaching staff’s trust — a coaching staff that no longer features long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia — they could position themselves as potential heirs to a throne currently occupied by Joe Thuney.
Either way, the clock has started to tick for New England’s young interior linemen. With Thuney not having signed an extension, they could find themselves in the spotlight next offseason.