The foundation for the foundation is in place.
Jarrett Stidham is about to embark on the most important summer of his life as he prepares to become the Patriots quarterback and has the benefit of knowing the team has his back — literally.
Stidham has the luxury of knowing his blindside — and therefore his backside — is covered by one of the best left sides in the league in guard Joe Thuney and tackle Isaiah Wynn.
Slapping the franchise tag on Thuney hours before Tom Brady became a free agent was the first step in making sure Stidham would be on solid footing when he first steps foot into the huddle as the starter.
Thuney is an elite left guard and would have had a number of suitors had he hit the free agent market. Locking him up, even if it means for just one season, is a win-win.
Thuney wins because signing the $14.87 million tag instantly makes him the second-highest-paid guard in the NFL. Plus, he’s still in an advantageous position because he’s poised to hit free agency in 2021.
The Patriots win because Thuney provides excellent stability at a most important position. Plus, they get a window to try and work out short- or long-term extensions.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 308-pound Thuney has started every game over the last four seasons after arriving as a third-round pick from North Carolina State. During his time with the Wolfpack, Thuney started at every spot along the offensive line except center.
When Dante Scarnecchia was once asked the top quality he looks for when evaluating offensive line prospects, the longtime Patriots assistant coach pointed to intelligence.
“You’ve got to have smart guys,‘' Scarnecchia said. “That’s No. 1 at all positions. You’ve got to have smart guys.‘'
Thuney certainly qualifies.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting before his senior season in Raleigh and he spent his final season working on a second degree in international studies and a Spanish minor. Thuney can often be heard conversing and giving interviews at his locker in his second language.
He was a finalist for the William V. Campbell Award (a.k.a. the academic Heisman), bestowed annually on the nation’s top scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation. He recently received his master’s degree from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
He’s also a master at his position.
Thuney, who worked out for and had a tutorial with Scarnecchia at his Pro Day in 2016, plays with excellent pad level, balance, and leverage as a run blocker. He quickly mirrors when pass blocking and delivers rapid jolts to keep his opponent at bay.
Adept at solving the Rubik’s Cube (he can spin it in less than two minutes), Thuney also has excellent recognition skills and can figure out defenses and execute combination blocks.
Thuney’s yeoman work in Super Bowl LIII when he helped mute Rams defensive terror Aaron Donald was equal parts brutality and artistry.
If Thuney continues to play at his current level, he’ll be at top of Stidham’s Christmas list come December.
Wynn has dealt with injuries in both of his professional seasons but showed enough in 2019 to see why the Patriots selected him 23rd overall in 2018.
Though the 6-2, 310-pound Wynn is considered undersized by NFL tackle standards, he doesn’t come up short when it comes to quickness, strength, and athleticism.
Wynn plays with a low center of gravity and his upper-body strength allows him to stun and bully defenders in the ground game. He pops swiftly and smoothly into his backpedal and can mirror and slide to keep edge rushers from turning the corner on him.
Scarnecchia was very complimentary of Wynn’s progress throughout his second season. In fact, Scarnecchia went out of his way to praise Thuney’s consistency and steadiness as key factors in Trent Brown’s outstanding 2018 campaign and Wynn’s development in 2019.
Now Thuney’s consistency and steadiness (and, by extension, Wynn’s) could be monumental factors in helping Stidham develop. Stidham knowing he’s not going to get clobbered every time he drops back will allow his confidence to grow.
Scarnecchia talked this past week on SiriusXM about possible growing pains Stidham could experience as Brady’s replacement.
“Yes, there’s going to be some things where he’s going to hold the ball longer than you want it to be held, but that’s all about growing up in this league,” Scarnecchia said. “You know, those young guys, they take some time.‘'
The responsibility of finding a comfort level for a young quarterback falls on a lot of shoulders and quite literally on the shoulders of the men on the front line protecting him.
Scarnecchia, who in recent years has had to help devise game plans and formulas to keep young quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett from getting croaked, knows exactly the message he’d deliver to his offensive line.
“I would just say, ‘Hey, listen fellas, we’ve got to do everything we can to make this guy as comfortable as we can,‘ ‘’ he said. “And I’m sure that the guys [likely Carmen Bricillo and Cole Popovich] that are going to coach those guys this year are saying exactly that: ‘We’ve got to be as good as we can be every down and give this guy all the support we possibly can and let him get comfortable and build confidence and be the kind of player that we want him to be and that he wants to be, more importantly,’ ‘'
Rosters will have opportunities aplenty
Roster rules already have been overhauled for the 2020 season, with active lists expanding from 53 to 55. Game-day rosters move up two to 48 — with one of the extra spots required to be an offensive lineman. In addition, practice squads can grow by up to four players to a maximum of 14. Practice squaders also will earn $10,500 per week — an increase of $2,500.
These changes are good, creating jobs and opportunities for players, who can benefit from the extra time in front of coaches to prove they belong.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, more roster spots are needed for this season.
Earning a spot on an NFL team is hard enough, but this season rookies face the monumental task of trying to earn their dream job despite not having a traditional offseason program. The Class of 2020 is missing out on the hands-on field and film room coaching that comes with rookie and mandatory minicamps and organized team activities. The possibility exists that they’re facing a condensed training camp and just two exhibition games.
That’s a lot fewer chances to make an impression and/or an impact on coaches who are trying to get teams ready in short order. It’s likely many decision-makers will lean more heavily toward seasoned veterans rather than taking chances on younger players.
A plan that could make sense is exempting rookies from roster spots and salary-cap hits for this season. This protects teams from losing prospects prematurely and would also allow them to carry extra bodies in case a coronavirus outbreak decimates the roster.
Taking into account that not all teams have the same amount of rookies, there are several ways to tinker with the plan to try to even the playing field.
▪ Only those drafted in the fourth round or higher, and undrafted players, are eligible for exemption;
▪ Once a player accrues one snap, his exemption is voided. This protects players who dress in an emergency but never actually get in a game;
▪ Create a developmental unit. This would be a group of players that would be ineligible to play this season unless they were first promoted to the practice squad for at least a week;
▪ Add some coaches. Similar to graduate assistants, this group could work extensively with the exempt players, allowing both groups to gain experience at the professional level.
Even if a player never advanced past the practice squad or developmental unit, a year in an NFL program would help offset the loss of their normal integration into life as a pro. It could help them better prepare for taking a shot at earning a job for the 2021 season.
IN GOOD HANDS
Healthy Sanu looks promising
Mohamed Sanu never really got on track in the Patriots’ offense after suffering an ankle injury returning a punt in his third game. Though he missed just one game, Sanu had just 14 catches over his final six games. This put quite a damper on the excitement Sanu created in his second game as a Patriot when he caught 10 passes on 14 targets against the Ravens.
It was clear in Baltimore that Sanu had built a rapid rapport with Tom Brady but that his injury had robbed him of his ability to cut swiftly and seamlessly — the keys to getting open quickly and having success with Brady.
It was a testament to Sanu’s mental and physical toughness that he suited up despite being slowed by the ankle. It was no surprise when Sanu showed up on some social media posts with a boot on his ankle.
Lately, however, Sanu has been posting regularly about his workouts, including one where he was fielding punts shot out of a machine and over a house.
A healthy Sanu, who cost the Patriots a second-round pick and is in the final year of his contract, could be a boon for Josh McDaniels’s offense.
Jarrett Stidham sets up quickly and has an accompanying rapid release. Having veteran weapons such as Sanu, Julian Edelman, and James White should help the young quarterback get into his rhythm.
Though the Patriots passed on plucking a receiver in what many analysts called a deep draft — clearly a nod to the confidence it has in Sanu and N’Keal Harry — the club has created competition at the spot through free agency.
Edelman, Sanu, and Harry are locks at the position and veteran signees Marqise Lee and Damiere Byrd will vie with holdovers Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, and Quincy Adeboyejo for snaps.
One of the most interesting battles when camp commences should be among the four undrafted rookies, three of whom fit the prototypical slot receiver profile, in Isaiah Zuber, Will Hastings, and Sean Riley. Jeff Thomas has slot receiver size, but his sizzling speed and outstanding body control indicate he could thrive outside the numbers, as well.
This quartet all shined in the kicking game in college, and to earn a spot on this squad they’ll have to prove they can consistently contribute at this level, too.
Zuber, Thomas, and Riley have extensive return experience, and this could be a subset battle as they compete to claim the kick and punt return jobs.
Hastings arrives with an established chemistry with Stidham from their time together at Auburn. He has an interesting backstory, having arrived on campus as a walk-on kicker who specialized in onside kicks. He moved to receiver — his high school position — when injuries mounted on the Tigers’ depth chart and finished his career with 56 catches for 845 yards.
Hastings had two knee surgeries in college, but it hasn’t hampered his route-running and cutting ability and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has called him one of the quickest players he’s had.
Riley never missed a game at Syracuse (49 for 49) and piled up 4,358 all-purpose yards.
Prep trumps play in the preseason
It was hardly stunning yet still disappointing when the Hall of Fame game, scheduled for Aug. 8, was canceled, and it was equally disheartening to hear Dr. Anthony Fauci say he still had doubts about the 2020 NFL season happening outside a “bubble” environment.
But the more positive news that came out of the conference call with league officials this past Thursday was that teams have been told to expect training camps to start on time. That would mean the Patriots would report to Gillette Stadium on July 28. It’s also likely the exhibition schedule will be cut in half (”We expect to have some resolution relatively soon on that,” said NFL executive vice president/general counsel Jeff Pash) and that makes sense given how different camps could be run.
With no on-field offseason work allowed, conditioning will be huge this summer and teams will need extra time and attention to get in shape physically and attempt to cut down on soft tissue injuries. Lopping off a pair of preseason games gives coaches more time to concentrate on getting their rosters ready for the real games.
If you missed Friday’s episode of “Patriots All Access” it is highly recommended you catch up to it as it will be available on patriots.com. In a Zoom panel discussion titled “Do Your Part,” 21 members of the organization discussed race, social reform, and justice. Among those who participated were players James White, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, and David Andrews; coaches Jerod Mayo and DeMarcus Covington; and director of player personnel Nick Caserio . . . Wishing the best for former Patriots receiver Josh Gordon, who recently applied for reinstatement to the NFL. The talented but troubled Gordon was suspended indefinitely Dec. 16 for violations of the league’s policies on performance-enhancing substances and substances of abuse. It was the sixth suspension of his career. Gordon’s lawyer said his client suffered a setback after the death of his older brother. As comfortable as the 29-year-old Gordon looked on the field during his Patriots tenure, he never appeared at ease in the locker room, whether it was his dealings with the media or his interactions with teammates during the times the room was open to reporters. Here’s hoping he finds that peace . . . Former Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes has landed a job with DEC Management as director of post-career client development, agent David Canter announced via Twitters. Spikes, who played for the Patriots from 2010-13, “will ensure all clients have a post career game plan and internship opportunities.‘' . . . Tom Brady’s Instagram post/ad for TB12 water bottles that quoted FDR’s “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself” appeared more than a little tone-deaf considering the current coronavirus surge in Florida . . . Colin Kaepernick deserves chances to play in the NFL again, but New England doesn’t seem to be a logical destination. The Patriots already are snug against the cap and are scheduled to have four quarterbacks in a camp where time and snaps will be at more of a premium than ever . . . Watching reruns of the series “Mom” (Hey, don’t judge, we’re in a pandemic here) and it’s obvious the writers are Raiders fans. The main characters are Christy and her mom, Bonnie Plunkett. Bonnie’s half-brother is Ray Stabler, her ex-husband is Alvin Biletnikoff, and her current husband is Adam Janikowski . . . Speaking of TV, I was highly suspect of Rob Gronkowski’s latest venture, “Game On!” but it did lead to some laughs. Gronk is as genuine as ever as he shows off his athleticism (he can do rhythmic gymnastics and Double Dutch!) and personality.