6 thoughts following the decisions to opt out by 6 prominent Patriots

The Patriots are the first team to be dealt a curveball like this, but they likely will not be the last.

Dont'a Hightower during the Patriots' win against the Falcons.
Dont'a Hightower. –Getty Images

COMMENTARY

An offseason filled with change got even rockier for the Patriots in the last 24 hours, as six players have opted out of the 2020 NFL regular season due to COVID-19 concerns.

Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden, Dan Vitale, and Najee Toran all opted to sit out the season because of healthy and safety concerns related to the coronavirus. Twenty five players across the NFL have decided to opt out of the season so far, with the Patriots leading the league by far in the number of players opting out.

Players considered high-risk can opt out and earn $350,000 for the season and an accrued season. Players without risk can opt out and still earn $150,000.

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Hightower, 30, just welcomed a baby boy into his family on July 16, and Chung, 33, is also expecting his second child soon.

Cannon, 32, is a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, and is considered high-risk under the NFL’s opt-out guidelines.

A new-look defense has changed even more.

From a football perspective, the Patriots are faced with an even steeper uphill climb in 2020, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the loss of Hightower cannot be emphasized enough.

Having been faced with replacing the production of Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins already, the Patriots’ defense must now move forward without its heart and soul in Hightower.

With Hightower, Collins, and Van Noy all off the team now, that means 47 percent of the Patriots’ 281 quarterback disruptions from last season are gone. The pass rush void was significant enough before Hightower’s decision, but now New England is really in trouble, with training camp upon them, and little time left to get new faces up to speed before (if?) the regular season gets underway.

There’s a lot of pressure on Ja’Whaun Bentley.

The spotlight will be on third-year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley to take over for Hightower as middle linebacker now. After having a promising rookie season cut short by a biceps injury in Week 3 of the 2018 season, Bentley played just 27 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2019. Now, with practically no depth behind him– unless you count two undrafted rookies and a sixth-round draft pick as “depth”– it’s sink-or-swim time for the Purdue alum.

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Aside from Bentley, the team will look to other young linebackers to pick up some of the slack left by Hightower’s departure. Chase Winovich had 5.5 sacks as a rookie last year, and played 29 percent of the defensive snaps. He was likely already in line for a bigger role in Year 2, but will likely see his number called even more, especially when the team needs to get pressure on the quarterback.

Rookie outside linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings could be thrown to the wolves faster than the team–or they– would like. Uche, in particular, is an athletic freak who can line up in several places on defense, and is known for his pass-rushing ability. If he can learn the defense quickly in a shortened training camp, his ability to rush the quarterback from the second level could help the team make up for the loss of Hightower.

The secondary should be fine.

Behind the linebacker position, at safety, the team is better-equipped to handle the loss of Chung, who saw a decline in production from a pass coverage standpoint in 2019. His 70.5 completion rate when he was in coverage was the worst of his career in 2019, and he also gave up the most yards per target (7.4) since 2016.

Safety Kyle Dugger was drafted by the Patriots the 37th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. —AP Photo/Butch Dill

The team had already worked to build depth at this position for 2020, signing Adrian Phillips in free agency and drafting box safety Kyle Dugger in the second round, which should soften the blow of Chung’s decision.

Phillips and Terrence Brooks, going into his second season in New England, will likely compete to start next to Devin McCourty at safety, in Chung’s role as a hybrid safety/linebacker.

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Dugger will likely see more time now as the team’s third safety, a position that sees a lot of playing time due to the team’s high usage of dime packages with three safeties on the field. Whether the rookie from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne can quickly adjust to learning an NFL defensive scheme and playing against NFL-caliber competition is a major question mark, however.

A silver lining on the offensive line?

In replacing Cannon, the Patriots might have gotten lucky, as Cannon, who is on the back end of his career and struggled last season, will no longer be on the team’s books for 2020 with his oversized $9.6 million cap hit.

With the combination of his age and performance, Cannon was one of the most overpaid players on the team, and while the team will need to find an adequate replacement for Cannon, they can use those $9.6 million in savings to address the position, along with others, if they need to.

However, the team will likely look inward for a solution at right tackle before they look to make a signing or trade. Yodny Cajuste, the team’s 2019 third-round draft pick out of West Virginia, is completely healthy now after missing the 2019 season with a quadriceps injury that landed him on the non-football injury list for the whole year. Cajuste is a talented player with good hand usage and adequate foot speed. If he can stay healthy, the team will likely have its Cannon replacement already within its ranks, as Cajuste’s tape at West Virginia shows a pro-caliber tackle with starting potential.

If Cajuste doesn’t meet expectations, or gets injured again, the team would be in more of a pickle. Korey Cunningham, acquired last preseason from the Arizona Cardinals for a sixth-round pick, is the only player on the roster with experience at tackle in the NFL, and was only active for one game with New England in 2019.

Sorting out the plan at fullback

At fullback, with Vitale gone now, the team will turn to Jakob Johnson, and potentially Dalton Keene, to take over for James Develin this season. Johnson isn’t the same athlete as Vitale is out of the backfield, but is a better blocker, which should help the team now that Cannon is out.

What this means for the salary cap

On the bright side, the contracts of the six players that are opting out will now toll to the 2021 season, meaning that New England gains almost $17.5 million in cap space in one fell swoop. With $24.5 million in total cap space now on hand, the team can address its needs on the free agency market (do they swing big with Jadeveon Clowney? Reunite with old friend LaAdrian Waddle at tackle?) or could choose to roll over their cap space into the 2021 season, with a smaller salary cap all but guaranteed in 2021 due to declining revenues this year because of COVID-19.

Welcome to NFL football in 2020, folks. One day you think you have a team, the next, you lose several players in the blink of an eye. Teams will need to maintain flexibility, and make smart financial decisions to navigate this uncharted territory. Team’s rosters could change at a moment’s notice. The Patriots are the first team to be dealt a curveball like this, but they likely will not be the last.

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