The New England Patriots’ team-building philosophy is not centered around a few high-priced star players, but instead based on the idea that a strong foundation across the board is the secret to success. Of that, the team has had plenty under head coach and de facto general manger Bill Belichick since 2000. Heading into his 21st year at the helm, however, the Patriots’ depth will be tested in truly unique ways coming off an offseason dominated by personnel changes.
Not only did New England lose core players such as Tom Brady or Kyle Van Noy in free agency, the team recently also saw six more men decide to sit out the 2020 season: the NFL and NFLPA added an opt-out clause to the Collective Bargaining Agreement due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and the Patriots are the most active team in the league so far when it comes to players taking advantage of this opportunity. While the organization believes the opt-outs are now over, it is still faced with an enormous challenge.
How do six players, including some who were projected to serve as starters or see regular playing time, get replaced a few days before training camp is scheduled to begin? This is where the Patriots’ “next-man-up” mantra will become important, so let’s take a look at who these next men might be.
LB Dont’a Hightower
Together with Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower has been the heart and soul of New England’s defense ever since he arrived via the first round of the draft in 2012. He has therefore been a cornerstone of the club’s second dynastic run. A classic Belichick linebacker due to his smarts, versatility and communication skills, Hightower is the team’s regular on-field signal caller and has a knack for coming up with the big play in the right moment. You don’t earn the nickname “Mr. February” unless your résumé looks the part.
Heading into the new season, the 30-year-old was again projected to serve as the leader of the team’s front-seven — especially following the offseason departures of fellow linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. Now, however, the team will have to replace him as well. Doing so will not be easy, though: Hightower is too big a part of the Patriots’ defensive operation, and offers a level of experience that does not have an equal among the remaining corps of linebackers.
Accordingly, it will take a team effort to fill the void created by his decision to opt out of the 2020 season. Luckily, New England does have linebackers aplenty even though they may not have the same pedigree as the future Patriots Hall of Famer.
Take rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, for example. The Day Two draft selections have not played a single down of NFL football just yet, but they are fundamentally sound football players who have shown the ability to play both on the end of the line as well as off the ball. Together with outside linebackers and fellow roster locks John Simon and Chase Winovich, they will help replace Hightower’s production against both the run and the pass and form the core of the linebacker position moving forward.
The same can also be said about Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is now the longest-tenured player at the position. While not as versatile as Uche or Jennings, nor as refined a pass rusher as Simon and Winovich, he has spent the last two years in the team’s system and has served as a rotational on-field signal caller before. The former fifth-round draft pick can therefore be considered the leading candidate to take over Hightower’s role as the defense’s main communicator.
Replacing Hightower will put pressure on all the players named here, though. They better be ready for the challenge, regardless of their draft status or prior experience.
S Patrick Chung
Even though he reportedly considered retiring earlier this offseason, Patrick Chung decided to return and restructure his contract. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed his plans, however, and the Patriots will now have to find a new player to fill their “star” role: ever since his 2014 return from a one-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Chung has been used as a safety/linebacker hybrid who aligned closer to the box and was given responsibilities against both the run and in coverage versus tight ends.
As is the case with the linebacker position, however, the Patriots did invest some considerable resources in their safety spot this offseason and therefore have some high-upside replacement options available: Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger.
Phillips was signed to a two-year free agency contract earlier this year. The former Charger is not just a standout special teamer but also one of the most versatile defensive backs in the entire league: he will likely see most of his playing time closer to the box in a Chung-like role, but could also fill other spots within New England’s secondary. Either way, the 28-year-old offers plenty of positional flexibility and experience to help the Patriots replace Chung.
Kyle Dugger, meanwhile, is more of a tweener who could play both deep like Devin McCourty or closer to the line of scrimmage like Chung and Phillips. No matter where the Patriots opt to use the second-round rookie, his athletic potential is enticing and could make him a viable second/third option further down the line. As for 2020 and especially the early portions of the season, the lack of a traditional offseason due to Covid-19 could hurt him and impact his already steep learning curve from Division-II’s Lenoir-Rhyne to the NFL.
The Patriots also have Terrence Brooks as a candidate to fill Chung’s role after he did just that at times last year. Brooks, however, might actually be better suited to serve as a deep safety instead of a star defender. Cornerbacks Joejuan Williams and Myles Bryant also project to be a part of the equation based on their skillsets and past experience lining up at safety.
OT Marcus Cannon
Marcus Cannon started his career as a swing backup, but by 2016 had seized the starting right tackle spot. Replacing the veteran lineman might actually be the Patriots’ biggest challenge in relation to their opt-out group considering that the depth behind him is markedly green: second-year man Yodny Cajuste, 2019 trade acquisition Korey Cunningham and rookie Justin Herron have appeared in a combined seven NFL games — all of which played by Cunningham while he was still with the Arizona Cardinals.
While the 25-year-old has the edge in terms of experience, New England’s new offensive line coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo might prefer turning to Cajuste as their replacement for Cannon.
A third-round pick just one year ago, Cajuste spent all of his rookie year on the sidelines after recovering from offseason surgery on his quad. Entering the 2020 offseason, however, he was still seen as the leading candidate to earn the number three role behind Cannon and left tackle Isaiah Wynn: his size, strength and physicality are all impressive, with his rawness and injury history the biggest issues heading into the league last year. If healthy and an active learner, however, he should be the frontrunner to fill Cannon’s old role.
New England, who now has over $24 million in salary cap space to work with, could of course also look at the free agency market — with one name standing out (even though Patriots fans may not be thrilled to read it): Marshall Newhouse.
The 31-year-old remains unsigned after spending most of last year in New England as a short-term replacement for an injured Isaiah Wynn. Newhouse had his fair share of issues, but was brought into a challenging situation by not joining the team until the regular season had already begun. His experience and the timing could work in his favor this time around, especially if the expectation is that he would be little more than a safety blanket in case the youngsters don’t develop properly.
RB Brandon Bolden
While listed as a running back projected to see occasional action as either a receiving option out of the backfield or a short-yardage/goal-line back, Bolden’s primary role was again projected to lie in the kicking game this year. Under normal circumstances, he would therefore have seen regular action on the Patriots’ special teams units — on both coverage, return and block teams — as a realistic candidate to again rank among New England’s leaders in playing time and tackles.
Now, however, the team will have to replace him. So, what are the options? Veteran coverage defenders such as Brandon King, who missed all of last year due to a quad injury, Cody Davis and Terrence Brooks might help fill his role on the defensive kicking game units. On the return squads — Bolden was the team’s leading kickoff returner in 2019 — the Patriots might turn to their rookie class: Kyle Dugger was an electric returnman in college, while undrafted rookies Jeff Thomas and J.J. Taylor might also compete for the job.
As can therefore be seen, the Patriots have some options to fill the roles held by Bolden in the kicking game.
On offense, meanwhile, Taylor could be one of the benefactors of Bolden opting out. Realistically, however, the team will split up his comparatively small role between regular change-of-pace back Rex Burkhead and second-year man Damien Harris.
FB Danny Vitale
The first Patriot to opt out of his contract on Monday, Danny Vitale was projected to compete for the vacant fullback role previously held by veteran James Develin. With the former Brown and Packer now opting to sit out the 2020 season after the birth of his first child in April, the competition appears to be down to two men: second-year fullback Jakob Johnson and third-round rookie tight end Dalton Keene.
Keene is a lock to make the Patriots’ roster due to his draft status, but he is not guaranteed to beat out Johnson. The latter, after all, has repeatedly surprised after arriving in New England via the NFL’s International Pathway Program last year: he first earned a role on the practice squad, and later was promoted to the active team after Develin’s season-ending neck injury. While Johnson himself was sent to injured reserve a short time later, he has shown that he can play at the NFL level.
If the Patriots opt to keep a pure fullback on the roster instead of trying to give Keene more responsibilities following an abbreviated offseason, they could probably do a lot worse than Johnson.
G/C Najee Toran
Although he brought one year of experience on their practice squad to the table, Toran was far from a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year and rather appeared to be a candidate for the developmental team yet again. After all, he was facing some tough competition in the form of Hjalte Froholdt and Jermaine Eluemunor as well as rookies Michael Onwenu and Dustin Woodard. Toran’s versatility could have helped him make the cut, but he would have been fighting an uphill battle nevertheless.
Given his status as a depth player, the Patriots will therefore not really have to replace him — especially considering all the talent they have along their interior offensive line anyway.