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.

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

For Josh McDaniels, adapting offense means tapping into Cam Newton's superpower

Josh McDaniels wouldn’t trade his time with Tom Brady for anything.

But the Patriots offensive coordinator did point out Friday that those times Brady wasn’t at his disposal are very valuable right now as the Patriots offense does its post-Brady pivot.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I’ve had when I didn’t have Tom,” McDaniels said on a video conference call. “Believe me, no one was happier to have him out there when he was out there for all the years I was fortunate to coach him.

"But I would say I did have some experience with the Matt Cassel year (in 2008), which I learned a lot about how to tailor something to somebody else’s strengths, we had to play that four-game stretch (in 2016) with Jacoby (Brissett) and Jimmy (Garoppolo), I thought that was helpful. And I was away for three years. So trying to really adapt … it’s not changing your system, it’s adapting your system to the talents and strengths of your players.”

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How will the Patriots offense change now that Brady’s gone has been a dominant topic of discussion this offseason. The six-time Super Bowl winners' strengths are well-documented and hard to replicate – absurd accuracy, poise, pocket-presence and the ability to decipher and manipulate defenses at will. Part of the reason they’re hard to replicate is that it took him a dozen years of monkish devotion to get where he was. Nobody’s got time for that.

So, after a couple of decades building a tower out of wooden blocks, the blocks are knocked down and scattered. And McDaniels starts building again. Same blocks. Different-looking structure.  

“(We need to) adapt (the offense) to the players that we have,” said McDaniels. “So, again, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Do I really want us to be good at this? Or are we good at this?’ There’s a fine line between really pushing hard to keep working at something that you’re just not showing much progress in vs. ‘Hey, you know what, we’re a lot better at A, B and C then we are D, E and F, why don’t we just do more A, B and C?” I think as a staff we’ve really had a lot of conversations about those kinds of things.”

McDaniels has discussed in past seasons how developing an offense is a trial-and-error process. The difference this year is there is no chance for the “trial” portion. No joint practices. No preseason games. Obviously, no OTAs or minicamps.

“We can’t make any declarations about what we’re good at yet because we haven’t practiced,” McDaniels acknowledged. “I think everybody’s chomping at the bit, eager to get out there and start to make a few decisions about some things that we want to try to get good at, and if we’re just not making a lot of progress then we just have to shift gears and go in a different direction.

“But I’m going to lean on my experience and then I’m going to lean on the staff, coach Belichick, just to, (say), ‘Let’s be real with ourselves. Yeah, we used to be good at that. We’re not doing so hot at it so let’s just scrap it for now and move in a different direction.”

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Obviously, a direction they’ll move in will most likely be powered by the mobility of whoever the starting quarterback is, Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton.

McDaniels pointed out that a player with the size, power and mobility of Newton does change things.

“It’s certainly not something I’m accustomed to using a great deal but you use whatever the strengths of your players that are on the field allow you to use, to try to move the ball and score points,” he said. “So whatever that means relative to mobility at the QB position, size and power, quickness, length, height with receivers … you go through the same thing many different times.”

Newton, said McDaniels, is the same as any other player who brings a unique talent.  

“I remember when you get a new receiver group … our receivers have changed quite a bit in terms of some of them were bigger … Randy Moss was a bigger guy and then we’ve had some smaller guys like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, and then you have tight ends that are more fast straight-line players and then you have guys like Gronk and those kinds of players,” he pointed out.

“Regardless of what the position is, I think you try to use their strengths to allow them to make good plays and if that’s something we can figure out how to do well and get comfortable doing and feel like we can move the ball and be productive then we’re going to work as a staff to figure out how that works best, and try to utilize it if we can.”

In other words, when you have a player with a superpower - Moss' speed, Welker's quickness, Gronk's size, Brady's brain, Newton's power - , you tap into said superpower. ASAFP.

Cam Newton provides update after openly wondering how he'd 'mesh' with Bill Belichick

Cam Newton provides update after openly wondering how he'd 'mesh' with Bill Belichick

How well will Cam Newton and Bill Belichick work together, we've wonderedNewton asked himself the same question when he found out that the Patriots were interested in signing him earlier this offseason. 

He shared his thought process on YouTube during a roundtable discussion with Victor Cruz, Odell Beckham and Todd Gurley: "I said, 'Hold on. How, how is me and Belichick gonna mesh?' You know what I'm saying?"

Well . . . plenty of time has elapsed since then. Newton and his new Patriots teammates have been at Gillette Stadium this week going through what Belichick has compared to the NFL's typical "Phase 1," which usually takes place in the spring and consists of meetings as well as strength and conditioning workouts.

So how has it gone? How have Newton and his new head coach meshed?

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"Listen, listen," Newton said during a WebEx conference call with reporters Friday. "There's a lot of things that I say that there's a perception, but at the end of the day, it's football. I've loved it ever since I've been here. 

"I've been here, going on a week, now and you hear rumors about certain things, but once you finally get settled in on things like that, none of that really matters. It's just all about finding a way to prove your worth on the team."

Belichick has coached all types of personalities, and had success with all types, during his Patriots tenure. Tom Brady was different than Rob Gronkowski, who was different than Randy Moss, who was different than Corey Dillon, who was different than Richard Seymour, who was different than Willie McGinest, who was different than Tedy Bruschi, who was different than Matt Light. 

Newton is a unique personality with a unique skill set who may require a unique approach from the Patriots coaching staff when it comes to drawing out his best. And there may be some bumps in the road as the team finds the right path to maximizing Newton's stay in Foxboro. But for now, according to Newton, everything is going swimmingly. 

It helps that before Newton even set foot inside the team's facilities, they'd established a track record that has him ready to buy into Belichick's way of doing things. 

"I'm still constantly -- I don't want to say in disbelief, but it's just a surreal moment," Newton said. "Nobody really knows how excited I am just to be a part of this organization in (more) ways than one.

"Following up such a powerful dynasty that has so much prestige and lineage of success -- a lot of people would hide from the notion to do certain things, but for me, I think this opportunity is something that I wake up pinching myself each and every day."