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.
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.