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Patriots 2021 free agency profile: Joe Thuney is slated to become one of the NFL’s highest paid guards

Related: Patriots free agency profile: LB John Simon

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency later this month — and there are quite a few of them.

All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is offensive lineman Joe Thuney, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.

Hard facts

Name: Joe Thuney

Position: Offensive guard

Jersey number: 62

Opening day age: 28

Size: 6-foot-5, 310 pounds

Contract status: Unrestricted free agent

Experience

What is his experience? After playing both tackle and guard during his five-year career at N.C. State, the Patriots opted to use Thuney on the interior of the line following their selection of him in the third round of the 2016 draft. Giving him a clearly defined role as opposed to the more versatile one he held in college paid immediate dividends: Thuney earned the starting left guard position during his first training camp in the NFL and went on to start all 19 of New England’s games that year — including the Super Bowl.

His rookie season was a sign of things to come. Over the four seasons that followed, Thuney proved himself one of the most reliable offensive linemen in all of football. Not only did he hardly ever leave the field — at one point playing 2,004 consecutive offensive snaps between the 2017 and 2019 seasons — and has yet to miss any games because of injury-related reasons, he also developed into a consistent blocker up front that progressed nicely both in the running game and as a pass protector through is pro career.

All in all, Thuney has started 90 of a possible 90 games over the first five years of his career as a fixture along New England’s offensive line. Along the way, he has helped the organization win two Super Bowls while he himself also earned some individual recognition: he was named to the Pro Football Writers’ All-Rookie team in 2016, was named a second-team All-Pro for his 2019 campaign, and is a member of the Patriots’ Team of the 2010s.

What did his 2020 season look like? With his four-year rookie contract coming to an end, Thuney was scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in March 2020. However, he never made it to the open market: the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him and therefore prevented him from becoming available for other teams. Thuney eventually signed the tender sheet to return to New England for a fifth season — once more holding down the fort as the team’s undisputed starting left guard and one of the best blockers in football.

Thuney’s 2020 season was therefore par the course for him. He started all 16 of the Patriots’ games, and once again led the team in playing time. Not only was he on the field for 979 of a possible 1,011 snaps on the offensive side of the ball (96.8%), he also played an additional 62 special teams snaps (of 397; 15.6%) as a field goal and extra point protector. He did miss a few snaps after hurting his ankle versus the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7, but was again as reliable and durable a player as any in the NFL.

Along the way, Thuney also was highly productive again. As a pass protector, he gave up just 12.5 quarterback disruptions all year long despite being asked to pass-block 511 times: he surrendered only half a sack and also allowed two hits as well as 10 hurries. In the running game, meanwhile, the Patriots were able to gain 856 yards last year when attacking behind the left side of the line for an average of 5.2 yards per carry. In both the running and the passing game, Thuney was impressive.

He also showcased his versatility beyond his normal position of left guard. With center David Andrews suffering a broken finger on his snapping hand, the Patriots turned to Thuney for two games as a replacement: Thuney played the center position in Week 3 against the Las Vegas Raiders and in Week 6 versus the Denver Broncos. New England went 1-1 in the two contests and struggled offensively in the second of those games, but Thuney looked impressive nonetheless while playing out of position.

The Patriots’ offseason decision to place the $14.78 million franchise tag on the former third-round draft pick to keep him aboard one more year can therefore be seen as a good one. While the Patriots’ offense as a whole struggled during the 2020 season — especially when it came to moving the ball through the passing game — Thuney was integral in helping the offensive line perform on a high level and being one of the best units in the game all season long.

Free agency preview

What is his contract history? When Thuney joined the Patriots in 2016, he signed a standard four-year rookie contract valued at $3.2 million. He spent his first four seasons in the NFL playing under that deal and added the aforementioned franchise tag tender — essentially a one-year, $14.78 million pact — ahead of his 2020 campaign. In total, his contractual career earnings are therefore estimated at $19.3 million by Over the Cap.

Which teams might be in the running? Considering Thuney’s status as one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league, plenty of teams are expected to come knocking on his door once the legal tampering period opens on March 15. Among those who could express interest are the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins — all clubs with quarterbacks on their rookie deals who have the financial potency to make Thuney the highest paid guard in football.

Why should he be expected back? Thuney’s track record with the Patriots speaks for itself. He is reliable and durable, and has developed a tremendous chemistry with those around him over the last few seasons. On top of it all, Thuney also offers experience and the versatility to play all five spots along the line: he played left guard for most of his career in New England, but also started at center twice in 2020 and played left tackle in practice. The Patriots’ offense as a whole is a better one with an elite player like him in the lineup.

Why should he be expected to leave? The Patriots have more salary cap space available than all but two other teams in the NFL, but there is still a chance Thuney’s market moves out of the team’s comfort zone. Add the fact that New England has versatile lineman Michael Onwenu waiting in the wings — he spent most of his 2020 rookie season at right tackle but might actually be better suited for an interior role — and you can see why the situation might be right for the two sides to part ways after five successful seasons together.

What is his projected free agency outcome? New England putting the franchise tag on Thuney last offseason came as a surprise, but a similar move should not expected this year. In fact, the circumstances might create a perfect storm for him to leave for greener pastures elsewhere. Thuney has earned his big payday, and while the Patriots being the ones to give him the money would be the best-case outcome, it seems more probably than not that he will wear a different uniform next year while earning upwards of $14 million per year.