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Is Joe Thuney really the one player the Patriots can’t afford to lose in free agency?

Related: Patriots offseason preview: Major changes could be on the horizon for New England’s interior O-line

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New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The New England Patriotslist of free agents is a long one that also features some core players of the last few seasons. Among them is left guard Joe Thuney, who started all 90 regular season and playoff games over the last five seasons and has grown into one of the best players his position currently has to offer across the league.

As such, the 28-year-old will be highly sought after when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 17; there is a chance he resets the guard market despite the salary cap being expected to decrease compared to 2020’s $198.2 million. Thuney has proven himself a reliable player, however, and those are not easy to find via the draft or free agency alike. His market will therefore be a healthy one.

Will the Patriots play a part in it after already placing the $14.78 million franchise tag on him last offseason? To a certain point they will, but one has to wonder if the team will let him leave if the price tag gets too high — especially considering the other holes the team has to fill on its roster.

According to Pro Football Focus, however, the Patriots cannot afford to let the standout guard depart. PFF’s Brad Spielberger recently named each team’s player falling under that “can’t afford to lose” category, and Thuney is his choice for New England:

New England Patriots: G Joe Thuney

Thuney has been an anchor for this Patriots offensive line as it’s gone through a state of flux, and while New England could not agree to terms on an extension for him prior to 2020 — instead franchise-tagging him — this shouldn’t necessarily be a sign of disinterest in extending him.

There is only one franchise tag for all offensive line positions, and Thuney’s $14.781 million tag for 2020 is over $1.4 million more than the highest-paid left guard’s average per year ($13.3 million — Jaguars LG Andrew Norwell). The Patriots clearly value Thuney, and they have plenty of cap space to get this done.

With all of that said, letting a player like Thuney walk to earn a compensatory pick is exactly what the Patriots do. Left guard is one of the least valuable positions in the NFL, and this New England team is not a left guard away from contending once again.

There is no denying Thuney has been an outstanding player ever since the Patriots invested a third-round draft pick in him in 2016: he has been a starter at left guard from Day One, has helped the team win two Super Bowls, and just last season showed his versatility when also starting two games at the center position — all while playing on as high a level as any interior offensive lineman in football.

That said, an argument can be made that the Patriots can afford to lose him considering the circumstances:

1.) Overall roster construction: New England has plenty of holes that need to be addressed, and one could argue that the price tag needed to bring him aboard could be better used elsewhere. His projected price tag — possibly around $15 million per year — could, for example, be used to bring back both center David Andrews and backup right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor in free agency to shore up the depth along the O-line even with Thuney gone. The Patriots would then likely still have around $8 million to work with before reaching the same value that a Thuney deal might have in 2020.

2.) Offensive line depth: New England’s O-line faces some questions heading into 2021 with Andrews and Eluemunor scheduled to enter free agency, and with long-time starting right tackle Marcus Cannon a candidate for retirement or release coming off his Covid-19 opt-out. That said, the Patriots do have some solid pieces in place to possibly fill Thuney’s void (given that Andrews and/or Eluemunor are brought back as well): sixth-round draft pick Michael Onwenu looked like one of the best young offensive lineman in the NFL in 2020, and could be moved from right tackle to his more natural position on the inside.

3.) Compensatory draft picks: As PFF pointed out, letting Thuney leave on a possible record-breaking contract would result in the Patriots getting one of the highest compensatory picks in the 2022 draft. The selection would probably come in the late third round and thus give the team some considerable additional ammunition to work with as it is trying to rebuild its roster for the post-Tom Brady era. A team like the Patriots in need of young talent might view an additional selection as more valuable than a guard on a massive deal.

So, with that said, who would take the spot as the one free agent the Patriots cannot afford to lose? There are certainly a few players worth making a case for.

The aforementioned David Andrews, for example, considering his role at the heart of New England’s offensive line and as a team captain. Maybe defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler — two of the most consistent players on the roster at a position that is a definitive need even if both of them are retained. Heck, maybe even quarterback Cam Newton given that the only quarterbacks under contract for 2021 are unproven Jarrett Stidham and Jake Dolegala.

If only one player can be named, Guy would probably be the choice: he may be on the wrong side of 30, but keeping him for the next one to two years would give the Patriots both some stability in the front seven, address possibly their biggest need outside of quarterback, and allow them to have one of their team captains lead the locker room through the rebuild.

Like Guy, Thuney is a key player for the Patriots. He is one of the few truly elite talents on a roster in transition and as such certainly worth being kept. However, value can only go so far for a team that appears to be more than one player away from getting back into championship contention — especially one on a market level contract.