Patriots' Joe Thuney could command monster contract in free agency

Patriots guard Joe Thuney has started every game in his four NFL seasons. Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots surprisingly traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals in March 2016, they received a second-round draft choice -- a pick they ultimately turned into guard Joe Thuney.

It was a quality-for-quality swap.

Jones was set to cash in for his first NFL mega-contract at the time, which the Cardinals were happy to provide him. Four years later, Thuney appears on the cusp of doing the same.

That could prove troublesome for the Patriots, whose offensive line was inconsistent for extended stretches of the 2019 season (in part because of injuries) and now could be moving forward without arguably the unit's best player.

"I think he is going to command big money," said former Patriots guard and current ESPN football analyst Damien Woody. "What's not to like about Joe Thuney?"

General managers across the NFL will ultimately provide the final answer to that question. But for those who consider paying big bucks in free agency, Thuney, 27, has a lot of positive things in his favor, as he's a two-time Super Bowl champion who has never missed a game.

"I would want to know that a player has exhibited a high level of play, that he's been durable within reason -- knowing there will be some injuries along the way -- and knowing that money and security isn't going to impact his passion for the game," said former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who is a football analyst for ESPN.

"I'd also want to know that within the ecosystem of the team, he's not going to upset the pay scale. What I mean by that is by bringing someone in from the outside, there are people in your own locker room that you haven't paid, and that's really important."

Thuney, by all accounts, has been an exemplary teammate in New England.

Woody draws a parallel between Thuney's situation and his own from 2004. Woody was a five-year starter for the Patriots, winning two Super Bowls, and he hit free agency at the perfect time by cashing in with a life-altering deal (six years, $31 million) with the Detroit Lions.

"This is a guy who literally when he came in, boom, they plugged him in and he's been a starter. Durable. Ultra-reliable," Woody said of Thuney. "He moves well. He anchors well, which is important, especially when you have a guy like Tom Brady, who isn't a mobile quarterback. That makes sure Tom has the depth to step up in the pocket. He's good in the run game, able to dig people out."

One question for the Patriots to answer is how comfortable they would feel having two guards as their highest-paid linemen, as right guard Shaq Mason signed a five-year, $50 million extension in August 2018.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said one of the first questions he would ask himself before making a big investment on an unrestricted free agent is why the player's original team let him get to the market.

"I had to deal with that with [receiver] Vincent Jackson, but that was more money related, because they weren't going to franchise-tag him again [with the Chargers in 2012]. After I figured out the answer, I was like, 'We're signing Vincent Jackson.' So it's trying to get to the bottom of that question with whatever avenues you can take," he said.

The NFL guard market has ballooned in recent years, aided first by the Jacksonville Jaguars signing unrestricted free agent Andrew Norwell to a five-year, $66.5 million contract with $30 million in bonuses/guarantees in March 2018. That set the stage, a few months later, for Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin to receive a six-year, $84 million extension.

So it has the potential to be a bonanza for Thuney, who joins Washington's Brandon Scherff as the top two free-agent guards.

In an initial ranking of the top free agents, Thuney ranked 32nd, according to ESPN's Kevin Seifert.

Thuney was named second-team Associated Press All-Pro, and had a 97% pass-block win-rate, according to ESPN's metric that uses NFL Next Gen Stats' tracking devices to chart which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer. That 97% mark was second best among all guards, behind Baltimore's Marshal Yanda.

"I just don't know if he's going to be in New England's price range," Woody said. "If he hits the open market, there might be a lot of money he might not be able to turn down."