No team in the NFL saw as many players exercise the Coronavirus opt-out clause last summer than the New England Patriots. A total of eight players decided to sit out the 2020 season over concerns about the pandemic, but they are now slated to return to the team.
While it remains to be seen whether or not they will actually be back for the upcoming season, there appears to be some positive momentum in this direction: team captain Devin McCourty noted earlier this month that all eight are trending towards a return.
“From my understanding, they’ll all be back,” he said while appearing on NBC Sports’ Patriots Talk podcast. “B. Bolden, High, Chung, so I can’t wait. Those are my guys — Cannon. I just can’t wait to be back around those guys, even outside of football. Just seeing them every day, seeing their nice faces.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the eight players, and find out who of them might have the biggest impact on the Patriots’ 2021 roster.
8. G Najee Toran
After spending his rookie campaign with the San Francisco 49ers, Toran joined the Patriots’ practice squad in 2019 and went on to sign a futures pact with the team after the season. This would have allowed him to compete for a backup spot along the interior offensive line, but he instead opted out.
While New England’s interior O-line could look drastically different following his return — starters David Andrews and Joe Thuney are both headed towards unrestricted free agency — anything more than Toran earning a backup role would be a surprise. He just has not shown much at the NFL level at this point in his career, after all, and should not be counted on to suddenly develop into a starting-caliber player.
7. WR Marqise Lee
Lee originally signed a one-year contract with the Patriots in April, after spending the first six years of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He opted out just three months later but already noted that he would be “eager to get back” after participating in New England’s end-of-year physical.
With his one-year deal still intact after it tolled into the 2021 season, Lee might get a chance to prove his value to the team this year. However, that is not a given: while the Patriots are facing some major questions at the wide receiver position, they have the financial potency and draft resources to bring some serious competition in over the course of the offseason — competition that might very well lead to the team parting ways with the 29-year-old when all is said and done.
6. FB Danny Vitale
The Patriots signed Vitale to a one-year pact last spring to have him compete with Jakob Johnson for the fullback position that was vacated by James Develin’s retirement. The competition was a short one due to Vitale’s opt-out, but he now has another chance to prove himself against Johnson.
Not accounting for potential injuries, there are only two outcomes: either Vitale wins the competition and makes the 53-man roster in place of Johnson, or he loses and will get cut (possibly to be re-signed to the practice squad, though).
Given his experience in the NFL and upside as a pass catcher out of the backfield — something Johnson showed only sporadically over his first two years in New England — there is a chance he sticks around after all. That said, Vitale is no lock to beat out the incumbent fullback and get a chance to contribute over the course of the 2021 season.
5. TE Matt LaCosse
Matt LaCosse’s first year as a Patriot back in 2019 was a disappointment. Injuries limited him to just 12 in-game appearances, and he caught only 13 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown all year — despite sharing TE1 duties with a 39-year-old Benjamin Watson who played through a torn Achilles.
Still, there is a chance that LaCosse could have a bigger impact on New England’s roster in 2021 after sitting out last year. With the tight end position remaining in flux and third-round draft picks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene continuing to grow into their roles, LaCosse might have some value as a veteran leader in the locker room and potential upgrade over fourth-year man Ryan Izzo.
Of course, that alone might not help him save his job: the Patriots could very well invest in outside help at a position that struggled mightily the last two years. If the club feels confident in Asiasi and Keene and decides against adding major upgrades to its tight end room, however, LaCosse might play a role again in 2021 — and if it is only as a veteran backup.
4. OT Marcus Cannon
Marcus Cannon has started 80 games for the Patriots since arriving as a fifth-round draft pick back in 2011. So, why is he ranked only fourth when it comes to potential impact for the upcoming season? He is no lock to return, especially on his current contract.
Cannon is scheduled to have a salary cap hit of $9.62 million in 2021 — fourth highest on the team. New England is in a far better financial situation than last year, but the club might still decide that the resources currently tied to him can be invested differently than in a soon-to-be 33-year-old who has not played a 16-game season since before becoming a full-time starter in 2016.
A lot will depend on the other players on the roster — from Michael Onwenu, Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste to potential offseason acquisitions — as well as the free agency experiences of the aforementioned David Andrews and Joe Thuney. As of right now, however, Cannon appears to be a prime cut candidate if New England wants to increase its salary cap space even further.
Releasing him would create $6.28 million in net cap savings for the Patriots.
3. RB Brandon Bolden
The Patriots’ special teams and running back groups fared well in 2020 even without Brandon Bolden, who opted out of the season in late July. Nevertheless, the veteran could be a valuable contributor next year given the uncertainty in both areas: in the kicking game, key players Justin Bethel and Cody Davis are headed towards unrestricted free agency; the same goes for change-of-pace/receiving running backs James White and Rex Burkhead.
While there is a realistic chance that at least three of the four are ultimately retained, Bolden could still play prominent snaps in 2021 not just on special teams but on offense as well — something that was not always the case during his previous seven seasons as a Patriot.
After all, he has experience serving in a similar role as the one played by White and Burkhead in the past. If they are gone by the time the season gets kicked off, or not fully able to participate (Burkhead tore his ACL in late November), or their potential replacements are not up to speed yet, Bolden could see regular action at his listed position to start the year — all while continuing to play a sizable role on special teams.
2. S Patrick Chung
Even though Chung may no longer be the same dynamic player he was earlier in his career, the 33-year-old could be given an important role in New England’s defensive backfield after opting out of the 2020 season because of family considerations. Chung has proven himself a valuable communicator, and is still an instinctive player from the box safety position he has filled ever since his return from a one-year stint in Philadelphia in 2014.
Even with him not part of the equation, though, the Patriots appear well set at safety: Devin McCourty will be back for another year, with Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips showing plenty of promise alongside him during what was their first season in New England. Chung would therefore not necessarily be a major upgrade from a talent perspective considering how well Dugger and Phillips performed in the box safety role in 2020.
However, adding him to the mix again might allow the team to make some usage-based changes within the group: having Chung and Phillips as the two box safety options — ideally playing alongside some improved off-the-ball linebacker depth — would allow New England to move Dugger back to more of a free safety role like the one played by McCourty. The youngster has the athleticism to succeed in it, and might thus even be a candidate to one day replace McCourty in the lineup.
Chung’s return might therefore not make all that big a difference when it comes to the overall talent of the safety group, but it could help Dugger take the next step in his development — and thus the team as a whole in reshaping its secondary for the future.
1. LB Dont’a Hightower
The Patriots’ linebacker position lost some serious talent over the course of the 2020 offseason. After Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all left in free agency, Dont’a Hightower also decided to opt out. Those departures left the team understaffed at what is a critical position in New England’s scheme, and were a problem all year long — one that contributed to the top-ranked scoring defense in football taking a major step back.
Ja’Whaun Bentley served as the number one option and as Hightower’s de facto replacement, with practice squad call-up Terez Hall, rookie linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche, and safeties Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger all contributing alongside him. However, the group failed to perform on a consistent level for much of the year.
Getting Hightower back would therefore be big. Despite turning 31 next month, he is still a valuable player in New England’s scheme due to his versatility and experience within the system: the long-time team captain is arguably the most important player in the defensive front seven as well as the central communicator not just up front but for the entire unit (a role that initially went to Bentley last year but was later handed over to Devin McCourty).
The Patriots cannot rely on Hightower’s return being the only upgrade at its off-the-ball linebacker position, but he would add some stability and starter-level depth to the group after it lacked both last year. As such, he is the team’s the most valuable returnee off the Covid-19 opt-out list.
Obviously, though, a lot can still change between now and the start of the season.
There is no telling whether or not McCourty’s projection mentioned above will turn true, for example. Likewise, the NFL offseason will shake up the Patriots’ roster and in turn might also change this ranking. It is therefore more of a snapshot than a definitive projection, but one that does show that New England will get some valuable contributors back in 2021.