Bengals could eye Alter alum Thuney to shore up offensive line

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 27: Joe Thuney #62 of the New England Patriots in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 27, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 27: Joe Thuney #62 of the New England Patriots in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 27, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney might be looking for a new landing spot this offseason, and his hometown team could be an option.

According to ESPN Senior NFL Insider Adam Schefter, the Patriots were not expected to use their franchise tag on the former Alter High School graduate as they did last year. That means Thuney likely will be headed to the free-agent market, and that might be of interest to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Free agency begins with the start of the new league calendar March 17, and the Bengals have said protecting quarterback Joe Burrow is their No. 1 priority in 2021. Burrow tore his ACL and MCL when the pocket collapsed and guard Michael Jordan fell into him during a Week 10 game at Washington.

The Bengals’ offensive line ranked 28th with 48 sacks allowed in 2020.

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“In terms of the guard position, it is something we’ll look at,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said Monday when asked if Burrow’s injury makes it likely the team will spend to upgrade the guard position this offseason. “We had a lot of guys playing and with the O-line in general with injuries, we had a lot of different combinations in there. When you’re switching your combinations in there, it’s normally not a recipe for success.

“We’ll have new faces in there. We’ll have guys that have another year of development under their hat. Hopefully a healthier group that stays healthy. And when we get five guys playing together, hopefully they can play together a long time. It’s a group that we’re focused on, we’re always focused on it, but that group in particular will be an important group for us.”

Tobin doesn’t blame the guard play for Burrow’s injury – he noted breakdowns happen and Burrow just landed in an awkward position – but the left guard spot has been a revolving door the past two years.

Thuney, 28, could shore that up and provide some versatility to the line. Primarily a left guard in New England, he was an All-Pro pick in 2019, and he’s also started games at center and played offensive tackle. Over the past two seasons, he’s been called for three total penalties and he’s played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps all five years of his career so far.

The Bengals certainly could use that kind of consistency, and the hometown connection could help their case. They likely will be looking to add to the offensive line in other ways as well.

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Many draft analysts have projected Cincinnati selecting Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the No. 5 pick and potentially moving 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams to right guard.

Sewell opted out of the 2020 season but Tobin would have seen him live in 2019 when scouting quarterback Justin Herbert – before the team decided on taking Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

“You’re always focused on that year’s draft class,” Tobin said when asked if he recalls Sewell from that Oregon game he scouted. “You observe things, but you want to spend your time on the thing that’s right in front of you. And so the majority of my time was spent on the thing right in front of me. That was not only Justin, but also the other seniors that Oregon had. And they had a few. So am I aware of him? Did I know who he was? The answer to both of those is yes. Did I do a deep dive into all of his strengths and weaknesses? Not at that time.”

Left tackle has been an issue for the team since Andrew Whitworth left after the 2016 season, but Sewell has been called the “next Anthony Munoz,” as he’s drawn comparison to the former Bengals legend.

Tobin said the difficulty of the position and injuries have factored into the team’s struggles there in recent years. Williams missed his entire rookie season in 2019 because of a torn labrum in offseason workouts that summer, and he missed six games in 2020 because of a concussion and then a season-ending knee injury that didn’t require surgery.

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“They’re playing against the premier athletes of the sporting world, really,” Tobin said. “So, it’s not an easy position to play and play effectively. I think most teams’ left tackles get beat from time to time, even the very top ones. So it’s a challenging position to play, number one. Number two, we’ve had injuries at the position that have stunted the growth of some of our guys over time. I think where we are right now, we feel good that we might one. He’s gotta stay healthy. But he’s shown real flashes of being a very good player. So we’ll see how it goes and whether we add to the group or not, that’ll be something to be determined as we go forward.”

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