Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Thuney and the tag: When Patriots starting left guard Joe Thuney was surprisingly assigned the franchise tag on March 16, he signed it almost immediately. Thuney was the first of 14 tagged NFL players to sign and there was an obvious reason for him to do so. It is an excellent contract — one year, $14.78 million.
The Patriots made Thuney the second highest-paid guard in the NFL, securing his financial future while also setting him up to hit free agency in 2021, where he could hit the bonanza.
In doing so, the Patriots also willingly contributed to their salary-cap crunch that already existed. They currently have the least cap space in the NFL — around $650,000. The Patriots will surely create space in the coming months to account for in-season transactions, and one of the easiest ways to do so would be to sign Thuney to a long-term extension by the July 15 deadline.
At a time on the NFL calendar when things traditionally begin to slow down — mid-June to mid-July — this is one of the biggest pieces of financial business the Patriots could execute.
But here’s the problem: Thuney’s current contract is quite advantageous to him, and thus he finds himself with uncommon leverage, which is a rare spot to be in when meeting coach Bill Belichick at the negotiating table.
Here is one view of the likelihood of how the situation will unfold for Thuney.
Plays on the franchise tag (80%): With the sides no closer to an extension than they were in mid-March, and the coronavirus pandemic leading more teams across the league to be cautious with long-term deals, the odds are highest that Thuney plays on the tag in 2020.
Signs short-term extension (10%): Former Patriots assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi hypothesized on his popular “GM Shuffle” podcast that this could be a possible middle ground that works for both sides — something along the lines of a two-year deal that essentially borrows some cap space from 2021 to lighten the 2020 crunch (he suggested two years, $26 million). It would probably have to be fully guaranteed for Thuney to consider it, unless his concern is growing that a big-money, long-term deal is less likely next year because of the pandemic (when the salary cap could potentially decrease).
Traded (5%): Any team acquiring Thuney would likely require it comes with some type of extension, and the pandemic has led to a more conservative approach across the NFL. Also, cap space across the NFL is naturally less plentiful than it was when free agency began, and there are fewer roster holes to fill.
Signs long-term extension (5%): Franchise-tagged players often hold firm in negotiations for a guaranteed money total that equals two tags, which is what they are already halfway toward achieving. That would be about $31-32 million for Thuney, which seems extremely rich for the Patriots based on their past approach.
2. Of 14 tags, no extensions: None of the 14 players who were assigned the franchise tag this year have reached an extension with their club. That reflects, in part, how teams have proceeded more cautiously with long-term deals in this uncertain offseason. If a tagged player doesn’t sign an extension by July 15, he has to play on the tag in 2020, per the collective bargaining agreement.
3. Why Scar was ahead of his time: Offensive tackle Chris Hinton, who played for the Colts (1983-89), Falcons (1990-93) and Vikings (1994-95), was flattered to hear just-retired Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia continue to say he is overdue to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Scarnecchia coached Hinton for one season in Indianapolis (1989) and Hinton gave me some insight last week.
“It wasn’t so much the technique he was teaching. We’re talking the late ’80s and that was still during the time where ‘I’m the coach, you’re the player.’ With Scar, it was ‘we’re in this thing together.’ That’s what I mean he was ahead of his time,” said Hinton, 58, who was a Hall of Fame semifinalist in 2017 but hasn’t advanced to that point since. “He knew there was more than one way to do it. So he would coach you up — it was clear he was still the coach — but he also wanted feedback. That was the first time in my career that I had that type of interaction with a coach.
“I think back, in particular, about the time I went to him and said, ‘How about if I stay in a two-point stance if I’m uncovered?’ I felt like I could do everything out of a two-point stance if I’m uncovered, if not better. He was open to it. He said, ‘That makes sense, give it a try.’
“It’s funny because now, offensive tackles, a lot of them are in a two-point stance 75% of the game. So that’s what I remember about Scar.”
4. Moving well after surgery: Patriots receiver Mohamed Sanu underwent surgery on his ankle in early March, and his offseason workouts have now shifted into a higher gear. Does this look like someone who is still rehabbing? Hardly.
Mohamed Sanu making running routes uphill look easy 💯
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) June 19, 2020
5. Giant opportunity for Gostkowski? The first thought that came to mind after last week’s news that Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas was arrested on hit-and-run charges was that it could potentially create an opportunity for free agent Stephen Gostkowski. Giants first-year head coach Joe Judge obviously knows Gostkowski well, and in turn, Gostkowski knows all about the challenges of kicking in MetLife Stadium.
6. How Brady’s presence resonated: Veteran cornerback Jason McCourty said on ESPN’s “First Take” last week that the Patriots have no shortage of leaders, but quarterback Tom Brady’s ability to lead was unique because it began simply with his presence. So that’s part of the uncommon void that must be filled. “Tom doesn’t have to say anything. As soon as he walks in, everyone’s watching the way he works, the way he prepares,” McCourty said. “So I think not having him will be an adjustment. I think that’s what our league is — change, and how you adapt and are able to move on from it.”
Jason McCourty is confident the Patriots’ locker room will be able to adjust to not having Tom Brady, because the team is filled with experienced veterans.
7. When every day is Father’s Day: One silver lining from an offseason of quarantine in Florida for Patriots running back James White was being home every day with his son Xzavier, who was born in September. Sunday is White’s first Father’s Day. “It’s been a good time seeing him grow, all the changes,” White said. And something for White’s fellow captain, Dont’a Hightower, to excitedly anticipate for the first time in July.
8. Douglas’ statement with Jets: When a new regime is establishing its program — as is the case with general manager Joe Douglas and coach Adam Gase with the Jets — how a high-profile contract dispute is handled can be a critical tone-setter. This is how I view what is unfolding with safety Jamal Adams, who wants a big contract and has requested a trade with two years remaining on his rookie deal. An important organizational precedent will be set — one way or the other.
9. Back to 52: Patriots outside linebacker Brandon Copeland was assigned jersey No. 52 by the club this week, which brings him back to his days at the University of Pennsylvania when he donned that number. A jersey number can sometimes paint a picture of a player’s journey in the NFL, and Copeland has been a story of perseverance, beating the odds as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He has had stints with the Ravens, Titans, Lions and Jets, wearing Nos. 48 and 51, and now is back in the number where his football journey began as he looks to carve out a niche in New England after signing a one-year deal in March.
10. Did You Know: Quarterbacks making their first career starts are 6-0 under Belichick, which accounts for Todd Philcox (Sept. 20, 1993), Eric Zeier (Oct. 29, 1995), Tom Brady (Sept. 30, 2001), Matt Cassel (Sept 14, 2008), Jimmy Garoppolo (Sept. 11, 2016) and Jacoby Brissett (Sept. 22, 2016).