The Patriots have 22 players set to hit unrestricted free agency when the NFL league year opens March 17. As that date approaches, we’re taking a closer look at New England’s free agents.
Up first: left guard Joe Thuney
2020 stats: 16 starts, two sacks, two QB hits, 13 hurries allowed
Likelihood of return: Not expected
Analysis: Thuney has been the Patriots’ best and most versatile starting offensive lineman for most of his tenure in New England since being selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Patriots valued Thuney so heavily last offseason that they used the franchise tag to bring him back at $14.781 million. New England and Thuney have failed to reach a long-term extension for a few years now, and franchising him again would cost upwards of $17.7 million. That’s a large price to pay even for the 2019 second-team All-Pro. He would be open to a return to New England, but just like last offseason, he won’t be taking a discount to do so.
If the Patriots can figure out a contract extension with Thuney, then it certainly would make sense to bring him back. He primarily plays left guard but started two games at center last season. He’s also played right tackle and left tackle with New England. The Patriots are projected to have over $60 million in cap space, and they could pretty easily fit Thuney onto the books, though it would mean reduced spending for other positions of need like wide receiver and tight end.
It helps the Patriots’ flexibility that they found a steal in 2020 sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu, who played left guard, right guard and right tackle last season. If Thuney walks, then Onwenu likely would slot into his old spot at left guard. Marcus Cannon is returning to the Patriots in 2021 after an opt-out last season and would project into his old right tackle spot in this situation. Center David Andrews also is a free agent but won’t be paid at Thuney’s level.
Here’s where some interesting cap accounting comes into play, however. Spotrac projects Thuney to sign a five-year, $76.8 million contract this offseason. The Patriots could construct Thuney’s contract so he’s only counting $13 million against the cap in 2021, and that’s being conservative. They actually could lower that figure even more if necessary. Cannon has a cap hit of $9.6 million in 2021, and $7 million of that can be freed up if Cannon is cut.
Is Thuney worth $6 million more than Cannon? Yeah, probably. If the Patriots re-signed Thuney and cut Cannon, then Onwenu could play right tackle. Once again, that would lessen the Patriots’ ability to spend freely on other positions, but they also already know what they have in Thuney while players acquired from outside of the organization would be projections.
If the Patriots let Thuney walk and cut Cannon, then they’re stuck looking for a left guard or right tackle in-house, on the open market or in the draft. The best case for re-signing Thuney is that he’s a better value than Cannon in 2021. The best case for letting him walk is that they already spend nearly top dollar on right guard Shaq Mason, and they might be hesitant to tie so much cap space into one position.
No one expected the Patriots to franchise Thuney last offseason. Most assume Thuney will leave in free agency this March. We’ll see if the Patriots shock the world once more.