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Thuney's athleticism, smarts and versatility likely appealed to New England

The Patriots added nine new players to their roster this weekend via the NFL draft. Therefore, I'll spending this week going over college film to get a closer look at the new Patriots and what they might add to the roster. Now that we've gone over the "sexier" picks at corner, quarterback and receiver, this series moves into the trenches with a look at versatile offensive linemen Joe Thuney. Due to Dante Scarnecchia's comments classifying Thuney as an inside player, I went back to 2014, when Thuney excelled at left guard (wearing number 54), to check on what kind of skillset he brings to that position.





Athleticism

The first thing that jumps out at you from Thuney's film is his athleticism, which is well-above average for an interior lineman. That athleticism was on full display at the combine where Thuney ran a 4.95 40 yard dash (only eventual Packers pick Jason Spriggs did better). His new Patriots teammate, Jonathan Cooper, was touted as one of the best guard prospects of the decade due to his athleticism, but Thuney's bested Cooper's combine performances in every drill except the bench press, all while weighing just 7 pounds less than Cooper did. That athleticism made it possible for Thuney to successfully make the switch outside to left tackle as a senior, a task he could be asked to replicate in the future if injuries mount on the outside.

His athleticism was likely a major plus for the Patriots, who have traditionally favored athleticism over pure size and power from their linemen. The Patriots blocking schemes call for their interior linemen to pull often, and also heavily features screens, which call for linemen to get to the second level and block moving targets in space. The Pats also play with a quick tempo that requires a high-level of stamina from their linemen. Thuney certainly has the agility to do all those things. Scarnecchia said as much himself in a recent conference call, saying "we think he has the traits that we covet for people that come in here".

A great example of that athleticism shows up at the 0:14 mark of the Louisville film. The Wolfpack roll quarterback Jacoby Brissett out to the right and pull Thuney in the same direction, with Thuney responsible for cutting off any backside pursuit. It's a protection the Patriots have used from time to time, and one their currently talent has struggled to execute at times. Thuney excels on the play, using his speed to get into position on time. He then manages to stop and change direction, throwing a block in space that leverages a crashing linebacker out of the play and allows Brissett to pick up a decent gain with his legs.



The 5:44 mark of the same Louisville game shows Thuney execute a combo block that he'll see plenty of with the Patriots. At the snap, he joins the center in double teaming a defensive tackle, using an excellent angle to knock the tackle off his initial path and making it a far easier assignment for the center to handle one-on-one. That allows him to disengage quickly, giving him time to get to the second level and throw a block on a linebacker. He's unable to sustain his block, as he leans forward too far going into the block and loses his balance after contact, but he still prevents his assignment from making a defensive play. That forward lean is a technical issue that comes up a few times on film, but is one that can likely be coached out of him.

His athleticism also shows up quite a bit in pass protection, where Thuney was amongst the nation's highest graded players by CFF the past two seasons. His quick feet allow him to consistently mirror and stay between the quarterback and defender, and his quickness often enables him to recover and reset even when initially beat. A good example comes at 5:55 mark against Louisville. The protection calls for the left tackle to block the three technique defensive tackle, traditionally a guard's assignment, with Thuney sliding out to "replace" the tackle and block the edge. It's a tough assignment, but Thuney gets over in time to give the speedy edge rusher a good shove that deters his ability to get to the quarterback.

Another example of how his athleticism and footwork benefit him in protection comes at the 2:42 mark against Louisville. Thuney's assignment on the play is to block Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall pick in last weekend's draft. At the start of the rep, Thuney begins his approach at a slight angle, inviting Rankins to attack his inside shoulder, towards his help. Rankins obliges and brings a solid bull rush, but Thuney does a great job of using short, choppy steps to reset his base while giving minimal ground, allowing him to maintain his base against a stronger player. He then does a good job of widening his base with a step out when Rankins attempts a spin move, thwarting the eventually first round pick.


Intelligence

Another trait that Thuney has been praised for is his intelligence. Thuney's intelligence off-the-field is well established (you can take your pick of whether graduating cum laude prior to his junior season, scoring a 39 on the Wonderlic or being able to solve a Rubik's cube in about a minute is the most impressive proof), but he shows smarts on the field as well.

Specifically, Thuney appears to be very aware of stunts and blitzes, often making good decisions on the spot when faced with a challenging defensive look. For example, check out the 3:49 mark of the Louisville game. Thuney recognizes a blitzing linebacker screaming through the "B" gap and temporarily leaves his assignment, which appears to be a one technique defensive tackle, to chip that blitzer back within reach of his left tackle. The tackle recovers and Thuney returns to find the defensive tackle that appeared set to challenge his "A" gap has dropped into coverage, only to be replaced by a second linebacker coming on a delayed blitz. Thuney almost gets back to thwart the second blitz, but the linebacker does a good job of taking a wide path that enables him to slip through and get a pressure. However, Thuney still made the right call in chipping the first blitzing linebacker, who would've broken through the left tackle and gotten immediate pressure if not for Thuney's help.

Identifying stunts and blitzes will be an important skill for Thuney, as many young offensive linemen struggle at first to make adjustments when NFL defenses hit them with confusing, complex looks. That could also be key if Thuney does indeed factor into the mix at center, his initial position at NC State. Scarnecchia noted in a post draft interview that the team did have him do some work snapping the ball when they worked him out, suggesting that there's at least a possibility that ends up being his eventual position. The center, of course, is responsible for making the line's protection calls. It's a huge responsibility, and Thuney's ability to handle it will determine whether he factors into that positional battle or if he's primarily a guard, where he'll face stiff competition from the likes of Cooper, Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson and Josh Kline.

Another way Thuney shows his intelligence is in his understanding of angles and leverage. His positioning is typically excellent and allows him to execute blocks beyond his talent level. A good example comes at the 1:43 mark of the Wake Forest game. The play is a designed rollout to the left for Brissett. Knowing this, Thuney swivels and opens his hips at the snap, like a tackle would. His assignment is completely walled off from Brissett's path outside the pocket, and is controlled from start to finish of the rep.

Another play that shows his awareness and positioning comes from the 9:45 mark against Louisville. The Cardinals only rush three and none of them come through Thuney's assigned gap, giving him the responsibility of helping one of his fellow linemen. With the center already receiving help from the right guard, Thuney turns his example to the edge, using a fantastic angle to throw a block into the side of an up-field rushing defensive end. The block feeds into the defenders up-field momentum, steering him completely out of the play.

Need to add strength

While all those traits are excellent fits for what the Patriots demand from their line, Thuney has his warts just like any prospect. At 6'5" and just 304 pounds, he's a bit undersized for an interior lineman and will need to add some playing strength to handle some of the interior monsters he'll be facing, particularly in an AFC East loaded with defensive line talent. Thuney has already added 60 pounds of good weight throughout his Wolfpack career, but his skinny (by offensive line standards) frame looks like it could carry 10 or so more pounds of muscle.

While Thuney was rarely beat in the tape I saw (according to CFF's metrics, he was rarely beat, period), the times that he was beat usually came when he was overpowered. While he generally held up well against Rankins in the Louisville game, there were a few instances when Rankins was able to knock him back, including one where he was driven back to Brissett's feet. Those losses are explainable (after all, Rankins was an elite prospect in this year's draft), but getting bull rushed back to the quarterback like this play against Wake Forest raises an eyebrow.



There are also some technique issues with Thuney that Scarnecchia will attempt to iron out. As many scouts have noted, Thuney's 32 1/4" arms are very short, even for an interior player. Playing on the interior will help negate some of the disadvantages associated with a lack of length, but it's possible that his short arms contribute to another aforementioned technique flaw: his tendency to lean too far forward when engaging in a block. I saw him stumble more than once when attempting to reach the second level because of this flaw, and it's one that experienced NFL linemen and linebackers will take advantage of.

Despite those flaws, Thuney looks like an excellent fit for the Patriots system. Plenty of linemen have overcome a lack of standout playing strength to succeed in this system due to athleticism and good technique, and Thuney comes as a more advanced player and better athlete than pretty much all of them. His positional versatility will also be an asset for the coaching staff, enabling them to be flexible as they find the best five players to put on the field. Whether he overtakes Bryan Stork for the starting center job, factors into the mix at guard, or winds up spending his rookie year as a valuable utility backup, Thuney should make the Patriots offensive line better sooner rather than later.

Ned Brady 5/06/2016 11:09:00 AM Edit
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