When the Patriots used the franchise designation on guard Joe Thuney, they took the unusual step of announcing to the world a contract adjustment.
"Joe has been a model teammate and an essential element to our success since joining our team in 2016," the Patriots' March 16 statement read. "Utilizing the franchise designation allows both sides more time to try to reach the goal of a long-term agreement."
That could've been a public acknowledgment of what Thuney has meant to the Patriots and their offensive line, a message to the player, his representatives and the rest of the league that the team has every intention of keeping him around. It also could've been the Patriots making sure they aren't accused of tagging Thuney with the intention of trading him later, for which there is a rule on the books in the collective bargaining agreement. (Per the CBA: "A Club extending a Required Tender must, for so long as that Tender is extended, have a good faith intention to employ the player receiving the Tender at the Tender compensation level during the upcoming season.")
For the Patriots, there's no doubt Thuney has been "essential to [their] success." He hasn't missed a start in four years. He's helped them win two Super Bowls. He was named a Second-Team All-Pro last season. Pro Football Focus has credited him with only one sack allowed over the last two years. He did not commit a penalty in 2019.
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But since that statement was released, the country has found itself in the throes of a global pandemic. In the course of devastating populations around the planet and holding entire nations hostage, sports have of course not been immune to the impact of COVID-19. It's still to be determined as to just how significantly North American leagues will be altered because of the virus. It's still to be determined whether or not the leagues will hold games before 2021. But even if the games go off, the economics for each -- including the money-making behemoth that is the NFL -- seem destined to take a hit.
ESPN's Adam Schefter said recently that the league could lose over $3 billion in revenue if games were played without fans in the stands in 2020. That would shrink the salary cap for next season considerably. The cap currently sits at just under $200 million for this coming season.
"The various estimates I've gotten from executives to owners," Schefter said, "is that the cap could be down anywhere $30 million to $80 million in 2021."
Former Patriots executive Michael Lombardi wrote for the Athletic that, "Until we make significant gains in prevention, vaccines and cures, there will likely be no fans in the stands and that means substantial revenue streams will be absent from the accounting process this season, which will impact future years."
Lombardi added on his "GM Shuffle" podcast: "The salary cap issue that's going on, because of the lost revenue, it could be a huge shortfall. I think that it's going to take some time to get it back. I think what we're headed for next offseason is a huge -- a huge -- huge problem . . . Somewhere between $30 and $80 million the cap will go down? This is going to cause complete panic. This is going to [lead to] an unemployment rate in the NFL of quality players beyond anything you've seen."
What's it mean for Thuney and the Patriots? Let's dig into a few different scenarios.
THUNEY SIGNS AN EXTENSION
From a team perspective, what would make the most sense for their immediate future would be to sign Thuney to a long-term deal.
Currently scheduled to play for a shade less than $15 million on the franchise tag for offensive linemen, an extension would mean more guaranteed money over the long haul for Thuney and more salary cap space for the Patriots for 2020. At the moment, according to Over the Cap, the Patriots are last in the NFL with just $1.3 million in available cap space.
Per Miguel Benzan, the Patriots could free up over $6 million in 2020 -- a sizable uptick that would make it easier to do any in-season spending -- while also giving Thuney $31.5 million guaranteed. That amount would be more in guarantees than any left guard has ever received.
Left guard Andrew Norwell received $30 million guaranteed from the Jaguars, while Cowboys right guard Zack Martin received $32 million guaranteed in his latest deal. Eagles guard Brandon Brooks signed a four-year deal for $56.55 million with an average annual value of $14.2 million per year that Thuney could be eyeing.
Here's a possible deal with Joe Thuney that would lower his 2020 cap number by $6.081M. Pays him as a top guard pic.twitter.com/CSbSOGeY5E— Cap Space=$650,989 (@patscap) June 13, 2020
Thuney might be interested in that kind of deal because it would pay him at the top of the market at his position and it would give him a little more security before heading to a 2021 offseason with so much salary cap uncertainty.
The Patriots might be interested because it'd give them the immediate salary-cap relief.
Win for both sides, right? The deadline to execute an extension for players on the franchise tag is July 15.
THUNEY PLAYS 2020 ON TAG
Eschewing almost $15 million in 2020 for more than twice that in guaranteed money makes sense for Thuney. Sure. It's a little more complicated than that, though.
If Thuney isn't presented with a deal he likes, he could wait. A player of his caliber, someone who could conceivably reset the market at his position, will still likely get what he's owed even if COVID ravages the finances of teams around the NFL.
"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 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.”
There is one potential difference in how bigger deals are structured, Fitzgerald noted. Because the NFL wants guaranteed money set aside by teams when contracts are signed, if there are teams that feel tight on cash after this season, they may be less inclined to offer big-money guarantees with new deals.
Still, the point is impact players like Thuney don’t seem to have much to worry about. But the NFL could end up a league of highly-paid stars and those on rookie deals in the near future, meaning it would be the middle-tier veterans — players whose contributions could be approximated by a younger player on a much cheaper salary — who 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 he's 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 will be to where they want to be, competing for championships. The tag would allow Belichick time to acquire more information about Jarrett Stidham, about the state of his roster and how close it 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.
PATRIOTS TRADE THUNEY
Just when you think a player is especially critical to his team's overall operation . . .
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 Bill Belichick's tenure in New England, of course. 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. Not ideal headed into a season with a first-year quarterback who could use all the help that he can get up front.
But New England's need for salary-cap space is real, and Thuney could recoup the Patriots a fairly valuable draft pick even if he'd be nothing more than a one-year rental for the team acquiring him. A third or fourth-rounder -- perhaps Philly's third after they lost Brooks for 2020 to a torn Achilles -- seems reasonable.
The Patriots would likely recoup a third for Thuney as a compensatory selection if he left via free agency, but the team would have to keep an eye on their 2021 free-agent spending to ensure that they'd receive a 2022 pick for him. The compensatory formula accounts for all free agents acquired and lost for each team, and so the Patriots signing a high-level free agent might cancel out the pick they were due for Thuney.
If not for COVID, the 2021 cap was poised to boom thanks to expected new television deals following the signing of the latest CBA. That might've enticed Thuney and others on the tag to bet on themselves in 2020 with an eye on the following offseason for a new deal.
While the NFL's financial outlook for 2021 and beyond is much hazier now, Thuney still finds himself in a good position. His next contract may not be quite as COVID-proof as those coming for star quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson, all of whom should see new deals in short order that will redefine the market at their position.
But Thuney is among the best at his job and can expect to be paid like it. Whether that's this offseason or next -- whether the cap goes down a touch in 2021 or falls through the floor -- he'll get his. It's the veteran players a tier or two below Thuney who could find themselves out-leveraged and potentially out of work come next offseason.