Patriots

Patriots keep Joe Thuney on franchise tag, still could swing a trade

Patriots keep Joe Thuney on franchise tag, still could swing a trade

A lot has changed since the Patriots announced on March 16 that they intended to use the franchise tag as a way to buy themselves time to strike a long-term deal with offensive lineman Joe Thuney.

"Joe has been a model teammate and an essential element to our success since joining our team in 2016," the Patriots said in a statement. "Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach the goal of a long-term agreement."

But one day later, on March 17, the United States reported its 100th death from COVID-19 and Donald Trump asked Congress to expedite emergency relief checks to Americans as part of an economic stimulus package. Months later, it became very clear that the NFL would not be immune to the financial toll COVID has taken on the country. 

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Revenues will take a hit. The 2021 salary cap will as well, in all likelihood. That's made long-term agreements -- the likes of which Thuney and others on the franchise tag wouldn't mind -- hard to come by. With uncertain financial futures, teams have been reluctant to shell out big-money contracts that extend over multiple years. 

The Patriots let the NFL's 4 p.m. deadline to come to a long-term contract agreement with players on the franchise tag come and go Wednesday. Just hours before the deadline, a source told NBC Sports Boston that things were "pretty quiet" when it came to extension talks between Thuney's reps and the team. He's now scheduled to play on the franchise tag -- worth almost $15 million for offensive linemen this season -- for 2020.

It's a heavy price to pay for a position that New England has filled with late-round picks and former practice squadders in the past. But given the questions surrounding the cap in 2021 and beyond, $14.78 million for one year might be more palatable for Bill Belichick (and for ownership) than a deal that would pay Thuney $50 million over four years, for instance, placing him near the top of the market at his position. 

The good news for Thuney is that a player of his caliber -- someone who could conceivably reset the market at his position -- still will likely get what he's owed even if COVID ravages the finances of teams around the NFL down the road.

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"Very good-to-great players will get paid by somebody regardless where next year's salary cap is set," former NFL agent and CBS analyst Joel Corry told me. "Carl Nicks reset the guard market in 2012 when the cap went from $120.375 million to $120.6 million."

“I don't think the 2020 tagged guys should be that concerned,” Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap wrote to NBC Sports Boston in an email. “One thing is that their salaries next year are locked in at a 20 percent raise if they got tagged a second time. Secondly, they are stars and stars are the players who get paid. So I think their risk is the same as it is now.”

Impact players like Thuney don’t seem to have much to worry about. But the NFL could become a league of highly-paid stars and those on rookie deals in the near future, meaning the league's middle-tier veterans — players whose contributions could be approximated by a younger player on a much cheaper salary — might be looking for work in a year’s time. 

Thuney is in a different class, though, and if he wanted to gamble on himself he could. One of the most durable players in the NFL, he hasn't missed a game in four years and has been off the field for just 10 offensive snaps total in that time. Playing on the franchise tag with no guarantees beyond 2020 would carry plenty of risk, but Thuney's track record of durability may give him more leverage than most.

There is a scenario in which the Patriots might be OK with Thuney on the tag for 2020. It could be a true placeholder as the team navigates what will be an unprecedented season for Bill Belichick and his staff. 

There’s uncertainty at quarterback in New England for the first time in a long time. Thus it’s hard to know how close the Patriots are to where they want to be: competing for championships. The tag would allow Belichick time to acquire more information about Jarrett Stidham, the state of his roster and how close his team is to a title before handing a record-setting, five-year deal to an offensive lineman. 

Important as Thuney has been to the team’s success the last four years, doing a long-term deal for a guard on a team that could be retooling for multiple seasons isn’t the same as paying a guard who helps solidify a championship-caliber roster. The 2020 season could be used to assess the situation and then make a call on a long-term contract for Thuney one way or the other in 2021.

Though the Patriots can't come to a long-term agreement with Thuney until after the season, they can still make a move with Thuney in order to free up salary cap space. 

They could trade him.

That move seems unlikely for a few reasons. No. 1, they just recently freed up several million dollars in cap space and now have over $7 million to play with; they aren't desperate for space in the same way they were two weeks ago.

No. 2, Thuney is their best player along the offensive line and helps lead a unit that should be one of the team's strengths.

No. 3, with Dante Scarnecchia retired there will be a premium on quality play, intelligence and leadership in front of whichever quarterback ends up succeeding Tom Brady.

And yet...

We've seen it with Logan Mankins. We've seen it with Chandler Jones. We've seen it with a number of players over the course of Belichick's tenure in New England. The Patriots aren't afraid to wheel and deal even when Plan B isn't obvious.

In this case, the Patriots don't have an accomplished replacement for Thuney ready to go. The choices would likely include second-year guard Hjalte Froholdt, and rookies Michael Onwenu or Justin Herron -- none of whom have any NFL game experience.

Unless the need for more cap room rears its head; unless the Patriots can't fathom paying big-money second contracts to both of their starting guards (Shaq Mason averages $9 million on the five-year extension he signed in 2018); unless a trade package presents itself Belichick can't pass up, Thuney will be in the fold in New England for at least one more year with a chance to hit the market again for the first time in 2021.

NFL Rumors: Details of Lamar Miller's Patriots contract revealed

NFL Rumors: Details of Lamar Miller's Patriots contract revealed

The New England Patriots have signed another former Pro Bowler for pennies on the dollar, it appears.

Running back Lamar Miller officially signed a one-year contract with the Patriots in free agency Thursday, and now we know the reported details of that deal, thanks to ESPN's Field Yates.

Miller will make $1.05 million in base salary in 2020 with $200,000 guaranteed. He has an additional $1.5 million in incentives, per Yates, meaning he can earn up to $2.55 million this season. 

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That's a pretty steep discount for the 29-year-old running back, whose four-year, $26 million contract with the Houston Texans (with $14 million guaranteed) expired this spring.

Miller made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and has two 1,000-rushing-yard seasons under his belt but missed the entire 2019 campaign after tearing his ACL in the preseason.

Miller actually has the same base salary as Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, who took an even bigger pay cut to join New England in free agency. Newton's contract has more incentives, though: The three-time Pro Bowler can earn up to $7.5 million this season.

Starting running back Sony Michel is still recovering from ankle surgery and may not be ready for Week 1, so Miller has the opportunity to revive his career in New England, while the Patriots are hoping to find value in another talented player coming off an injury.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Jeff Benedict details process of writing 'The Dynasty'

Patriots Talk Podcast: Jeff Benedict details process of writing 'The Dynasty'

There’s one sentiment shared by everyone who’s covered the New England Patriots for the entirety of their dynastic run. Gratitude. 

It might not show up in the day-to-day coverage of reporting on the nitty-gritty of where the team is and where it’s headed. It might not seem like it when we probe and analyze the interpersonal relationships and shine a light on where the agitations are. 

But to have had a front-row seat to history for 20 years? To watch a once-failed head coach, an overlooked quarterback and an idealistic and sometimes naïve owner combine to lift the Patriots from NFL afterthought to the most successful team in the history of America’s most beloved sport? Right place, right time for me. 

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I coulda been born in Saint Augustine, Florida, and spent my career covering the Jaguars. I wasn’t. I got to cover the team I loved first. The team I cried over when it lost in the 1976 playoffs to the Oakland Raiders. I can still remember the sense of accomplishment I felt at the 1997 NFL Draft, the first event I covered in person on the Patriots beat. It was all I wanted to do. 

The Patriots drafted Chris Canty in the first round. It’s gotten better since then. 

When you cover the team this long, you develop a sense of “ownership.” A belief you know the story as well as anyone possibly could. It’s probably not healthy. Really, it’s a barrier to learning. But I’ll admit it lurks. So when it was announced that author Jeff Benedict would have a book called, “The Dynasty” coming out in September, there was a flash of, “I already know the story…” combined with a twinge of “Why’s he writing it? What’s he know that I don’t?"

Well, as it turns out – and as I expected from an author of Benedict’s ability – there’s a lot he knows about the Patriots that I didn’t.

I’m more than 200 pages into the 525-page book. Benedict spoke to 250 different people. He got everyone who matters on the record – Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, Tom Brady, Roger Goodell … the list goes on. I’m learning a lot. 

Benedict, who along with Armen Keteyian wrote the best-selling book, “Tiger Woods,” is a master at digging for details and anecdotes and putting his reader in a fly-on-the-wall position because he’s such a terrific reporter and storyteller. 

”The Dynasty” won’t be released by published Simon and Schuster until September 1. There’s an embargo on the content until then. But I did get to speak with Benedict on “Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk Podcast” about the two-year process of writing this book. 

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“To me, we’re talking about the greatest sports dynasty, certainly of this century in America and it’s in the conversation as being the greatest sports dynasty in America ever,” said Benedict. “I did feel a tremendous sense of being overwhelmed, a sense of foreboding because it’s such an epic story. 

“I’m not an insider,” Benedict said. “I know all these guys who have been around this franchise forever. I wasn’t there for any of it. I’ve literally never covered a Patriots game … And here’s an army of men and women who’ve been around the team, so it was sort of this idea of, ‘What can you bring that would actually add value and be different?’ 

“I tried to look at it from the perspective of the one thing I can relate to is, I’m a New Englander to the core. What I do feel is I really understand my audience. And the core audience for this book is people who live in New England and people who have followed this team and are in love with this team.

"It’s not to say I don’t want to write it for people in other parts of the country. I want them to read it too and there’s a great story there even if you’re a Jets fan or a Steelers fan. But the core audience is us who live in New England.”

The start of the book is Kraft-centric. The first 100 pages cover the machinations he went through to purchase the team, keep it in Foxboro and build a stadium, which have been somewhat been taken for granted around here and are laid out in detail by Benedict. I learned a lot.

“I have a wonderful editor,” said Benedict. “My editor gave me the same challenge with this as he did with Tiger Woods and that was, ‘I want the reader to learn something new on every single page of this book.’ So if the book is 500 pages long, that’s at least 500 things you need to find that no one else knew. 

“That’s really hard in the New England market,” Benedict added. “The Patriots are the most beloved team in New England. They’re the kings. They’re covered the most. It’s saturation coverage. So I took the approach that, this is not a book about a person, this is a book about a team, about a franchise.

"I went into it with two central questions that all Patriots fans are interested in. First, how was this dynasty built? How was it made? What distinguishes this team from all of those others is they ran their course in about a decade. And after that, their ship had sailed. This dynasty has doubled the length of any of its predecessors. And the second question is how did they sustain it?”

The book is current. It gets into the departure of Brady, the machinations that led to it and the sentiments of everyone involved. Again, I know the story and what I’ve been told. But nobody told me exactly what was said, where conversations took place and how people reacted. 

Benedict has that in The Dynasty. Which serves as further proof that, in life, you think you know. But often you don’t really know.

Check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or on YouTube.