The offseason has proven tumultuous for the New England Patriots, with now five players opting out due to concerns over COVID-19. Who opted out? And who do the Patriots have to step up in their place?
First Tom Brady.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the Patriots Offseason-From-Hell continues. As players are beginning to opt out of the 2020 season given the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patriots have suffered greatly.
In just two days, Dont’a Hightower, Danny Vitale, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden, Najee Toran and now Patrick Chung have all elected to opt out of next season. The big names, of course, are Hightower and Cannon, who were both expected to be key pieces in the season for the Patriots. This is a devastating blow to the Patriots after so much turnover already in 2020. While Toran was a reserve player who would have battled to make the roster, here is how the other four player’s decision affect the roster this upcoming season.
Hightower has been the mainstays for the New England Patriots defense since he entered the league in 2012. When healthy, he’s still one of the best linebackers in football. It’s his versatility that makes him great, as head coach Bill Belichick is able to use him depending on his other linebacker skill sets. He’s able to cover running backs and tight ends in passing situations, move sideline-to-sideline to make tackles and rush the passer at a high level when necessary. He can do it all. While Van Noy and Collins had breakout contract seasons, Hightower was still regarded as the leader of the self-proclaimed Boogeymen, allowing those players to be in their best positions to be successful.
Belichick clearly recognizes his value, as he is one of the few free agents he’s paid over the years. Now with Hightower out, that makes four of the five main Boogeymen off the team this next season, as Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts all found new teams in 2020. Ja’Whaun Bentley remains the only returning player from a dominant linebacker corps from the 2019 season.
Who Steps Up?
Here is ESPN.com’s current projections for the New England Patriots defensive depth chart for the 2020 season:
I’m no head coach, but surely that isn’t what Bill Belichick hoped for to start the season.
Taking out Hightower, that’s a lot of blanks, and shows the lack of depth the Patriots currently have. Heading into the season, it was clear that Bentley and Chase Winovich we’re going to have to take significant leaps into the starting caliber players we hoped they would be. But now without their star, the Patriots will either have to look to free agency, or hope one of Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings can have an impact as a rookie. Uche is the kind of player who translates to Hightower’s skillset, but Belichick rarely uses rookies in significant spots in their first couple of years. Hightower was the play caller and leader of the defense, it’s unfair for Uche to take on that role.
Free agency offers some interesting options. Nigel Bradham is a guy who can help out in Hightower’s role. He was a leader for the Eagles defense, and is sort of like Hightower-lite. He can cover pretty well, and also racks up the tackles similar to Hightower. If they aren’t looking for a replacement, they can look at Mark Barron as more of a coverage linebacker to pair with pass rusher Winovich. There’s options available (they’re not going to pay Jadeveon Clowney, so don’t even bring it up), but the Patriots need to pounce on them quickly.
Cannon is another player who’s been a mainstay in the Patriots lineup, and tribute to the brilliance of longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Cannon entered the league in 2011 after battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the pre-draft process. It was a great story, but by 2015 Cannon looked like he might not make it in the league, as he was struggling to succeed at the transition to offensive guard from playing offensive tackle in college. But the move back to right tackle proved influential to his performance, and has since been a key player to the offensive line for four straight seasons.
Last season, however, was Cannon’s worst since his breakout year. PFF rated him just abover 70, which is typically the benchmark for a solid lineman. He needed a bounce back season, but won’t get the opportunity with the opt out.
Who Steps Up?
The players on the roster are Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste at tackle. Cunningham was a seventh round pick of the Cardinals in 2018, and only appeared in the Patriots blowout win over the Miami Dolphins 43-0 in week two of last season. Cajuste is most likely the candidate to take over at right tackle. The third round pick in 2019 was a longtime starter at West Virginia, but had quad surgery hurt his draft stock and forced him to miss his rookie season. He’s known as a strong pass blocker in the pre-draft process who needs to improve his tenacity to get better as a run blocker.
Another candidate could be a player on the Patriots last season. Marshall Newhouse filled in for Isaiah Wynn when he was injured last season, but he was as useful as a traffic cone the majority of last season. Here’s the evidence:
That just isn’t going to work in the NFL, and hopefully the Patriots will look internally before bringing in Newhouse again.
This one hurts. James Develin suffered a neck injury in week two of the season, but had long been one of the best run blockers in the league at the fullback position. The neck injury unfortunately ended his career.
After Develin went down, the Patriots struggled to run the ball. One of their strengths for years was having Develin and Rob Gronkowski, one of the best blocking tight ends of all time, which essentially translated to seven offensive lineman on the field at all times, creating big holes for whoever was in the backfield. Sony Michel took a dip in form last season because of it. He’s never been one to break a lot of tackles, and losing two key blockers is something he wasn’t able to overcome.
The Patriots saw a little bit of success with moving Elandon Roberts from linebacker to fullback, but still it was obvious that without Develin the fullback position needed to be addressed. Vitale was supposed to be that guy. His opt out puts New England back at square one at the position, and they’re still one of the few teams where the fullback is important to their offensive success. When they won the Super Bowl in 2018, the Patriots used two backs in their lineup 57 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders, which was second in the league. With transitioning to Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham, that position and helping the passing game became more essential.
Who Steps Up?
Fullback was a bit of a carousel last season, and there’s not another one on the depth chart. One player that could fill the hole in a pinch is Dalton Keene, the rookie out of Virginia Tech. He played a lot of H-back for the Hokies, and with rookie tight ends typically struggling to get the schemes early in their careers, he could work into a fullback role if necessary. The player likely to take over is Jakob Johnson, who was the first man to replace Develin last season before suffering a shoulder injury that had him out for the season. The benefit to Johnson is that his International player exemption allows him to be on the team without counting against the 53-man roster. He’s solid catching the ball out of the backfield for a fullback, but isn’t quite the blocker Develin is by any means.
The good news for the Patriots, is that with less and less teams using fullbacks, there’s usually one available. Malcolm Johnson is a free agent who has yet to crack a roster, but could be given a look by the Patriots.
Chung was the most recent opt out, as he chose to opt out early on July 28. Chung was a member of one of the best secondaries in the league last season, and him and Devin McCourty have been the key safety duo for a decade. A year after ranking as one of the top safeties in the league from Pro Football Focus, Chung struggled at points, and maybe his age was taking it’s toll. Still, he’s another veteran presence on the team, and was another key starter to opt out.
Chung is your prototypical strong safety, who spent nearly 75 percent of his snaps within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. He was the run stopper to McCourty’s work as the center fielder/deep safety. There are options available, but none with the playbook knowledge of Chung.
Who Steps Up?
The Patriots did draft Kyle Dugger, a super-athletic second round pick. He projects as Chung’s replacement, but seemed like a long term prospect given that he played at Lenoir-Rhyne last season and has a steep learning curve.
The free agent available that makes the most sense is Eric Reid. The longtime safety has a lot of experience and plays the position at a very high level. He’s also versatile, as he can navigate both the free and strong safety position. He’s a perfect one year option who could even be an upgrade over Chung. He finished last season with the Carolina Panthers with 130 tackles, four sacks and six pass deflections. He’s a safety that can contribute everywhere. If New England wants to continue to have a dominant secondary, Reid may get a call.
It may not seem like much on the surface, but Bolden’s impact to the roster is something Belichick values immensely. He’s been on the team for a while for good reason, as he’s a versatile, hard working player that could be put on special teams, or make the occasional play on offense when called upon. His four touchdowns last season were the most for a season in his entire career. Bolden’s impact is minimal at face value, but he’s clearly a presence that Belichick and the coaching staff respects and appreciates on the field and in the locker room.
Who Steps Up?
Bolden’s impact is minimal on the field, which doesn’t make it difficult to find a replacement for him on special teams. However, his leadership and experience in “The Patriot Way” is where his value really lies. Leadership isn’t easily replaced in a locker room, and that is something the Patriots will struggle with so much turnover in 2020.
The good news is this gives the New England Patriots $24 million in cap space (not including Chung) to work with this next season. The bad news is the loss of leadership and impact players to a team with so much turnover this offseason could be detrimental to their success in 2020. But still, In Belichick We Trust:
Photo: (Mark J. Reblais – USA Today Sports)