Outside of quarterback Tom Brady, Joe Thuney might be the best member of the New England Patriots scheduled to hit the open market. The former third-round pick has turned into one of the best guards in the NFL and played a key role in each of New England’s last two Super Bowl championships. However, despite his immense talent, the Patriots would be wise to let Thuney walk and find a replacement in the upcoming months.
Why the New England Patriots Should Let Joe Thuney Walk in Free Agency
Salary Cap Woes
In a perfect world, the Patriots could just sign every good player to a market-level contract. Unfortunately, that is simply impossible due to the salary cap. According to Spotrac, the Patriots are currently projected to have just over $42 million in cap space at the start of the 2020 league year. This number falls around the league average but it doesn’t account for the impending $13.5 million cap charge from Tom Brady’s contract.
Brady restructured his contract last offseason to create some short-term cap relief for the 2019 season. However, in doing so, the Patriots created a $13.5 million cap charge in 2020. New England could theoretically spread that money over multiple years if Brady re-signs before free agency, but that appears unlikely. Multiple reports indicate that, at the very least, Brady will hit the open market and listen to offers from other teams. This means that the Patriots are going to need to make room for Brady’s $13.5 million cap hit plus the cap hit from his future contract.
Joe Thuney is one of the best guards in the NFL and is going to be paid accordingly. Pro Football Focus projects Thuney to receive $13.5 million per year, which the Patriots simply cannot afford. By the time they re-sign Brady or bring in another veteran, New England will probably have approximately $20 million in cap space. Signing Thuney at that rate is financially irresponsible and represents a poor use of resources.
Joe Thuney is a great player, but he doesn’t play that important of a position. Unless you face off against Aaron Donald on a weekly basis, most teams don’t need an elite left guard to function at a high level. There aren’t many elite interior pass rushers, so a team can easily get by with an average starter at left guard.
The Patriots already handed out lucrative contract extensions to right guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews. Mason has been worth every penny and should continue to be one of the best right guards in the league. Andrews was phenomenal in 2018 before missing 2019 with blood clots in his lungs. Andrews’ absence played a big role in New England’s disappointing season, but he should return in 2020. Back in August, the Providence Journal reported that Andrews required three to six months to recover, and there have been no reports of any setbacks in his recovery.
Mason and Andrews are among the best at their respective positions, Marcus Cannon is a reliable starter, and Isaiah Wynn impressed during what was essentially his rookie year. Even without Thuney, the Patriots should have one of the better offensive lines in the league, assuming Andrews returns to health. Thuney can only make so much of an impact on his own, and investing top dollar into a player who won’t notably move the needle is bad team building.
Possible Joe Thuney Replacements
The Patriots are among the best in the league at drafting and developing young offensive lineman. The NFL Draft is largely a crapshoot, but New England’s consistent ability to identify and develop offensive line talent suggests that they genuinely do have a gift for this sort of thing.
New England has four picks in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. Using a first-round pick on a guard seems unlikely considering the rest of the needs on the roster. That said, New England could easily trade out of the 23rd overall pick in order to select a guard in the second or third round. It’s too early in the draft process to try and identify a team fit, but there will be capable players out there.
On top of drafting a lineman, the Patriots should also look into bringing Ted Karras back for another season. Karras, a former sixth-round pick, has experience at guard and spent 2019 as the starting center. He’s no superstar, but he can be a capable starter and will only make a fraction of Thuney’s salary. Additionally, the team also has 2018 fourth-round pick Hjalte Froholdt. Froholdt missed his rookie season but now has a chance to compete for a starting role. Froholdt had a rough preseason, but hopefully, he spent 2019 adding strength and refining his craft.
Chances are, whoever they get in 2020 won’t be as good as Joe Thuney. However, they have enough serviceable options to get by without handing out a massive contract.
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