Joe Thuney makes sense for the Philadelphia Eagles for a very unique reason.
He’s young, ultra-athletic, and a willing mover of bodies tailor-made to play in a zone-blocking scheme. Since entering the league as a third-round pick out of NC State, Thuney has only allowed 11 sacks versus 4507 offensive snaps, while maintaining an average value grade of 9.5 over his first four NFL seasons. As crazy as it may sound, Thunye actually graded out better than Brandon Brooks in 2019 according to Pro Football Reference, a borderline unbelievable statistic when you consider the Eagles’ right guard was arguably the best offensive lineman in football.
So, all things considered, subbing in Thuney for Brooks would be a best-case scenario for the Philadelphia Eagles’ hopes of retaining the best offensive line in the NFL in 2020, right?
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In a vacuum, totally, but in practice, things get a bit more complicated.
You see, the reason the New England Patriots signed Thuney to a franchise tag in 2020 is because 1. He’s going to cost a ton of money to sign long-term and 2. He’s just too good to hand-deliver to the team with the deepest pockets on free agency.
Like the Eagles, the Patriots aren’t in the best place salary cap wise long-term, so while they would all but certainly retain their homegrown left guard on what would all but certainly be a near-record-breaking long-term deal, they likely can’t without shifting some serious assets around and sacrificing talent at other positions across their roster.
With four offensive linemen drafted in the last two years, the Patriots can probably sneak by with the winner of a guard competition going into the 2020 season – especially with Cam Newton inbound as the team’s presumptive quarterback.
To be fair, the Eagles would also probably be fine with the winner of a guard competition between Matt Pryor, Jack Driscoll, Nate Herbig, and potentially even 2020 sixth-round pick Prince Tega Wanogho, but then again, is that a risk really worth taking? Trading for Thuney will all but guarantee the Eagles’ offensive line doesn’t miss a beat, a luxury the Birds may be willing to pay a premium for.
I mean heck, if the Eagles were willing to trade a fourth-round pick for Jordan Howard, a fourth-round pick for Jay Ajayi, and a *gasp* third-round pick for Golden Tate, a trio of players who appeared in 32 combined games in midnight green over their collective tenures, why not invest a similar pick for a legitimate position of need, even if it’s nothing more than a one-year rental?
That, my friends, is the question at hand.
Sure, there’s a world where the Eagles trade for Thuney, he plays very well this fall, Brooks comes back fully healthy in 2021, Jason Kelce retires, Isaac Seumalo returns kicks inside to center, and the team continues to field the best offensive line in the NFL for the next half-decade but my goodness, that’s a lot of dominos that would need to fall perfectly for it to actually happen. If, say, Andre Dillard fails to materialize as a viable left tackle, that entire plan goes out the window, the same thing if Kelce opts to play for just one more season.
As we watched during the Darren Sproles-saga from 2017-19, betting on a retirement is a fool’s errand, even one like Kelce who has hinted at a premature end to his playing career over and over again.
That, however, doesn’t mean the Eagles shouldn’t trade for Thuney mind you, it just doesn’t mean he should be viewed as a long-term solution at left guard. If that happens, great, but that’s like getting an accidental curly in an order of french fries: If you want curly fries, just order curly fries.
A more realistic outcome would be that the Eagles land Thuney for, say, a 2021 third-round pick, play him at right guard all season, and allow him to walk in free agency when the season comes to an end.
Why is that the best outcome? Well, I’m glad you asked.
First and foremost, the Patriots would actually have to accept that deal, which is far from a sure thing. Well, at least it was a week ago. However, after receiving heavy sanctions from the NFL moments after signing Newtown in free agency resulting in the loss of a 2021 third-round pick, the Patriots may be a bit more willing to listen to offers on Thuney to recoup assets for their soft-rebuild. The Eagles have a third-round pick burning a hole in their pocket, and if 2020 is of any indication, Howie Roseman is more than willing to move assets around to optimize value.
From there, the onus is on Thuney to maintain his pristine guarding abilities when kicked from the left side to the right, an outcome that is anything but a sure thing as Dillard made abundantly clear last season. By doing so, Thuney will boost his free agency value, keep his playoff streak alive, and enter 2021 in-line to become a very wealthy man.
Again, if he proves himself indispensable, and a million things go right, maybe that deal ends up coming from the Eagles, especially if Roseman can concoct it in a way that 2021 pays out less than $1 million.
Realistically, that won’t happen. Brooks will return in 2021, Seumalo will remain at left guard barring an absolute collapse, and Kelce will return for his 11th straight season with the Eagles. If that’s the case, the Eagles will then move into 2021 with a good offensive line, no third-round pick in 2021, but a compensatory third-round pick in 2022.
See where I’m going now? Thuney isn’t the answer to all of the Eagles’ prayers but the NFL equivalent of a short-term bond that transforms a 2021 third-round pick into a 2022 third-round pick with a year of borderline-Pro Bowl play for the trouble.
Could the New England Patriots ultimately opt to keep Joe Thuney in 2020 to ensure Cam Newtown stays upright this fall? That is entirely possible, but there isn’t a man alive more confident in his play evaluation abilities than William ‘Bill’ Belichick. If he believed that Hjalte Froholdt and Michael Onwenu were worthy of being selected in the fourth and sixth rounds, why not go roll with them this season, overachieve versus initial expectations, and then draft a new left guard in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft – sticking it to the league in the most Belichick way possible? If that’s the case, the Philadelphia Eagles should be first in line to encourage this descent, as Thuney really is the best option to replace Brandon Brooks in 2020, even if that’s his ceiling with the team barring a ‘Knives Out’-esque series of events that opens up a long-term role.