There was no shortage of support in Cincinnati for the Bengals to sign free agent guard Joe Thuney last year. The idea was backed by every factor you could think of.
From the moment Thuney joined the New England Patriots in 2016, he became one of the most stable blockers in the NFL. He never missed a single game with the Patriots as he established himself as a consistent all-around left guard with the Pro Football Focus grades to back it up.
Like most offensive lineman drafted by Bill Belichick, Thuney developed quickly and played to his full potential. But this is New England we’re talking about, and they are as stingy as the Bengals when it comes to their assessments of player value. Thuney would be franchise tagged in 2020 just so he could enter free agency the following year.
Not only was Thuney this blemish-free lineman in his prime with experience of winning at the highest level, he had regional connections to Bengals. He grew up in nearby Kettering, Ohio where his family still resides. He was a star at Alter High School and turned that into a scholarship from North Carolina State. He’s on the record for loving Skyline Chili. If the Bengals were to acquire one of the priciest free agent offensive linemen on the market, they would have to leverage their hometown advantage.
They were unsuccessful in the end. Rumors of “low-balling” surfaced from negotiations between Thuney’s camp and the Bengals were soon followed by reports of the Kansas City Chiefs reeling him in with the largest contract in the history of the NFL for a guard.
For as desperate as the Bengals were to improve their offensive line last offseason, the Chiefs acted as if it were a life or death situation, and you can’t really blame them for thinking that. They watched Patrick Mahomes’ pass protection break down over the course of the 2020 season and Mahomes still carried the team to their second Super Bowl in as many years. The rag-tag unit in front of their franchise quarterback would finally crumble against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which would prove to be the difference in the game. Tom Brady may’ve won his seventh
god damn ring that night, but the lasting memories of the game involved Mahomes running for his life and nearly making it work in the process.
Thuney was the first of two crown jewels for the Chiefs’ new offensive line. The second would be Orlando Brown Jr., whom the Chiefs acquired via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Brown wanted out of Baltimore due to his desire to play left tackle, and Kansas City provided him with that opportunity by giving up a first-round pick to get him.
Kansas City’s investments in Thuney, Brown, and the rest of the line have paid off this year. Mahomes has had a legitimate top-five pass-protecting o-line this year, and his new left guard and left tackle duo came into Cincinnati on Sunday with the task of limiting Trey Hendrickson and the Bengals’ diverse group of defensive tackles. Things would soon get tricky, though.
During warmups right before kickoff, Brown tweaked his calf and was declared out for the game. Brown’s backup was Lucas Niang, a third-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, who has started eight games this season entering Sunday; not a bad backup plan against Hendrickson, the Bengals’ free agent prize from the offseason.
With the money the Bengals didn’t use to sign Thuney, Hendrickson was brought in as the highest-paid free agent signing in team history. We’ve already covered the impact Hendrickson has had on not only the team’s defense, but their perspective of team-building in general.
Hendrickson had a historic 11-game half-sack streak to continue, and now he was going up against a reserve for presumably 40-something drop backs. On the fourth drop-back, more trouble would arise for Kansas City.
Niang injured his knee after taking on a bull rush from Hendrickson just four minutes into the game. Now the Chiefs had to get really creative. Very rarely do teams have two backup tackles active on game days. This would require someone playing out of position. What about the $80 million man at left guard?
For the remainder of the afternoon, Thuney and Hendrickson would go back and forth, trading blows in a very expensive brawl. Thuney would render Hendrickson sack-less for the first time since Week 4 at a position he’s never played before. He’s surely deserving of credit, but it was far from a one-sided affair. These were some of the best plays from their intense matchup: