Joe Thuney

Who's the next man up for Patriots as Thuney deals with foot injury?

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Who's the next man up for Patriots as Thuney deals with foot injury?

The left side of the Patriots offensive line is going to have a very different look when OTA workouts kick off later this month. 

According to ESPN's Mike Reiss, left guard Joe Thuney is preparing for upcoming foot surgery that "isn't considered anything that should threaten his availability for the 2018 season," but will keep him off the field during passing camp practices. 

Thuney played all but five snaps last season (1354 total) at left guard alongside left tackle Nate Solder. But when the Patriots take the field in shorts, t-shirts and helmets on May 21 for the start of Phase Three of the offseason program, there will be two new bodies to the left of center David Andrews. 

Even if Thuney isn't expected to miss regular-season action, how the Patriots handle his left guard spot in the short term will be noteworthy.

Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia could, in the interest of getting their five best linemen on the field, use first-round pick Isaiah Wynn at left guard. Wynn figures to be a top option to replace Solder at left tackle, but he played both guard and tackle on the left side while at the University of Georgia. That would leave tackles Trent Brown, LaAdrian Waddle, Cole Croston and Matt Tobin to battle for left tackle work. 

The Patriots could also give Wynn an honest shot at becoming the solution at left tackle -- something we argued they should do soon after Wynn was drafted -- and try Ted Karras (last year's primary backup on the interior), Luke Bowanko (free-agent addition in his fifth year) or Jason King (about three months on the Patriots practice squad last season) at left guard. 

Croston is another interesting option for the Patriots to use on the interior. An undrafted rookie out of Iowa last season, Croston practiced both at guard and tackle in his first year as a pro. He held onto an active roster spot all season despite not seeing any snaps of consequence. The team liked him enough not to expose him to waivers at any point in 2017, and they could envision him taking on a more significant role in his second season.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Not many needs for young interior offensive line of Patriots

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent to that area, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today we're looking at a spot where the Patriots are completely set . . . we think: interior offensive line. 

OTHER ENTRIES IN THE SERIES

HOW THEY PERFORMED: It wasn't always pretty, particularly at the outset of the season when Tom Brady was being hit at a rate that rivaled years when he was most battered. And the way the season ended for this group -- with Shaq Mason allowing a sack to Philly's Brandon Graham that helped end the Super Bowl -- was obviously less than ideal. But that shouldn't overshadow how this group performed, particularly in the second half. Mason was a borderline Pro Bowl talent (Pro Football Focus' fourth-best grade at right tackle for 2017), pairing his devastating run-blocking with a vastly-improved ability to protect. David Andrews continued to play solidly and effectively make calls from his place as the line's pivot, getting through the season as PFF's No. 4-graded center. And while Joe Thuney had occasional issues with power rushers, he graded out as PFF's seventh-best left guard. Three top-10 players at their respective spots? And a reliable all-around backup in Ted Karras (three total pressures and one bad snap in two starts at center)? Plenty of teams around the league would love to be as solid up front. 

 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018: Thuney, Mason, Andrews, Karras, James Ferentz, Jason King

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED: Not dire. At all, really. It's a 1 out of 10. They have three young, relatively healthy, improving players who will come back in 2018 and should slot in as immediate starters. The No. 1 backup at all three interior spots, Karras, is back as well. Ferentz is veteran depth piece who spent last season on the team's practice squad and was given a future contract by the team soon after the Super Bowl. Jason King (and Cole Croston who can play both guard and tackle) will also be back with the team when offseason training begins. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY: The best guard on the market was one of the best guards in the league in 2017: Carolina's Andrew Norwell. Other veterans who will garner interest on the market? Colts 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort and former Patriots starter Josh Kline. Jonathan Cooper, briefly a Patriot, will also be back on the market this offseason. Will the Patriots be interested in any of them? My guess is no, unless the team is put in an impossible situation at left tackle and they want to try Thuney on the outside, freeing up their left guard spot . . . but that's a pretty far-fetched scenario at this point. Even though Thuney played tackle in college, the Patriots drafted him to play on the inside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT: Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson will be fascinating to track on draft day. The 330-pound guard is considered by some to be one of the two or three best football players in the draft. He's touted by experts as a surefire longtime starter with All-Pro potential. But he's a guard. Are teams going to be willing to spend a top-10 or top-15 pick on a position that is ably filled by late-round picks and undrafted players all over the league? Nelson's an interesting case study in that regard. It's a pretty strong draft class at the top, it seems. Georgia's Isaiah Wynn and Texas-El Paso's Will Hernandez have received first-round buzz, as have a few centers: Iowa's James Daniels, Arkansas' Frank Ragnow and Ohio State's Billy Price. Then there are the tackles-who-may-be-guards-at-the-next-level. Texas' Connor Williams, who we mentioned in our tackle assessment, is the biggest name who could end up getting kicked inside. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN ADDRESS IT: There really isn't much to address, in my opinion. However, there's a little wrinkle here that's worth keeping in mind. The Patriots were reportedly interested in drafting Indiana's center/guard prospect Dan Feeney in the third round last year. They had the 72nd pick. He ended up going to the Chargers at No. 71. The Patriots traded down for a pair of picks when Feeney was gone. One was used to get defensive end Derek Rivers. The other helped them snag tackle Tony Garcia. Why the interest in Feeney? His size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and athletic profile (7.52-second three-cone, 101-inch broad jump) actually compared somewhat favorably to those of Logan Mankins (6-4, 307, 7.52-second three-cone, 95-inch broad jump). The idea of having him at center, between Thuney and Mason, could've been enticing. So will the Patriots jump at the chance to add a similarly-gifted player to play in the middle if the opportunity presents itself? Never say never, but I don't think so. Andrews received an extension after the draft, keeping him in New England through 2020, and he was named a captain before the 2017 season.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

A Patriots strength could quickly become a weakness

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering the draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding said talent. We'll start things off with what is currently the team's greatest area of need: Offensive tackle.

HOW THEY PERFORMED
Considering the Patriots lost one of the best right tackles in football to injury, the performance at this spot has to be considered a rousing success. Back in August, when backup tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming were having a hell of a time in West Virginia trying to slow down the array of Texans pass-rushers thrown their way, it looked like this group might cripple the Patriots if anything were to happen to Nate Solder or Marcus Cannon. Instead, it ended up being one of the team's deepest positional groups. Solder led the group. After an up-and-down first half, he was stout following the team's bye week. In 11 games after the break, including playoffs - after getting more aggressive with his punch, according to o-line coach Dante Scarnecchia - he allowed just one sack and five quarterback hits. Cannon played in seven of the team's first eight games and was sidelined for the season when he aggravated an ankle injury he'd been dealing with for much of the season. Waddle performed admirably in Cannon's absence, taking on talented pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, Von Miller of the Broncos and Khalil Mack of the Raiders and not allowing a sack in that stretch. When Waddle got hurt, Fleming stepped in and was more than serviceable. He started seven games, including two of three playoff games, and allowed three total sacks. Despite going against two of the game's best fronts in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, neither Jacksonville nor Philadelphia could take advantage of New England's third right tackle. The Patriots needed depth at that spot for the second time in three years - 2015 was a mess at tackle due to injuries, and the Patriots were forced to use center Bryan Stork there briefly - and they had plenty this time around. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018
Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks.

WHO ISN'T
Nate Solder, Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle.

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED
It's about as dire as it gets -- a 10 out of 10 on the Gary Tanguay memorial "How concerned are you?!?" scale. If the Patriots aren't able to bring back one or more of their impending free agents this offseason, one of their deepest positions will suddenly become one of their greatest liabilities. Solder hadn't yet made any decisions about his future by the end of the season, meaning there's no guarantee he'll return. It's written into his contract that he can't be given the franchise tag so the Patriots will have to figure out a new deal with the soon-to-be 30-year-old if they want him. Fleming and Waddle could try to turn their fill-in performances this season into new contracts elsewhere in what will be a relatively weak free-agent tackle market. Cannon should be back to full health for the start of the 2018 season and he'll be a lock to start the season at right tackle, but it's the left side that could be an issue. The Patriots have three young tackles in-house in Garcia, Jelks and Croston, but it's unclear exactly how ready any of them will be to take on the massive responsibilities that come with protecting Tom Brady's blind side. Garcia missed his entire rookie season due to illness and lost a significant amount of weight - and he came into the league already relatively light. Jelks, an undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, stayed on the non-football injury list this year and hasn't played since 2014 due to season-ending knee injuries in 2015 and 2016. Croston is a promising player headed into his second year - the Patriots protected him on the roster all season even though they knew he was buried on the depth chart -- but he's unproven. There are myriad question marks here. If the Patriots can't bring back Solder on a new deal, finding a left tackle capable of handling the job would probably shoot to the top of their offseason to-do list. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?
Not much. The most established tackles hitting free agency, outside of Solder, rank as some of the worst in football, per Pro Football Focus. Greg Robinson (graded as PFF's No. 66 tackle), Chris Clark (No. 77) and Donald Stephenson (No. 51) aren't necessarily names that scream "plug and play!" There are other swing tackles and career backups available, but if the Patriots are forced to look for Solder's replacement, it probably won't be on the free-agent market. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?
The options seem to be better here, although rolling with a rookie tackle at the premier position of left tackle would be a sizable risk. Three tackles are commonly referred to by draft experts as first-round options: Oklahoma's Orlando Brown, Texas' Connor Williams and Notre Dame's Mike McGlinchey. Ohio State's Jamarco Jones, Oregon's Tyrell Crosby and Western Michigan's Okorafor Chukwuma have potential and could probably be had in later rounds, but they'll probably need more polish.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?
The best way for the Patriots to address the situation would be by re-signing Solder. He could argue he's worth around $13 million per year (about what Russell Okung received when he signed a four-year deal at 29), and perhaps the Patriots would be willing to go there on a shorter-term deal depending on Solder's career plans. Otherwise, the Patriots could re-sign Waddle and/or Fleming and try Cannon on the left side. In that scenario, the Patriots may be hurting two positions while trying to fix one, but it still may be their next best option. If they're having a hard time coming up with answers, maybe the Patriots could try left guard Joe Thuney at tackle -- he played there in college -- but his length and his track record the past two years would suggest he should stay on the inside. Finally, if Garcia or Croston is ready to take on a bigger role, the Patriots could try either at tackle. Garcia is a very good athlete, but he'll need to get much stronger - especially after his illness - to play on the left side. Because the best tackle prospects in the draft will likely be off the board before the Patriots pick at the end of the first round, getting Solder back seems to be the most logical way to go about making sure the left side of New England's offensive line is secured for 2018.