The New England Patriots made some big additions so far this offseason, but also had to watch two long-time cornerstones leave the organizations. After guard Joe Thuney decided to sign a five-year contract in Kansas City, safety Patrick Chung took to social media on Thursday to announce his retirement from the NFL.
Chung, who spent 10 of his 11 years in the league as a Patriot, played 163 games for the team and helped it win three Super Bowls. A future member of the team’s Hall of Fame, his retirement will be felt even though the team already started the process of moving on from him during his Coronavirus opt-out in 2020.
New England loses leadership and toughness...
Not only was Chung a long-time leader on defense due to his play from the strong safety position, he also was a tone-setter for the entire unit. He was well-respected by his peers and repeatedly stood out as one of the toughest players on the field.
Just look at it this way: after returning to New England in 2014, and despite moving to a physically taxing position closer to the line of scrimmage, Chung missed only five of a possible 109 games. He dealt with his fair share of injuries, like every player, but was consistently reliable and available when his team needed him.
...and a foundational member of its Dynasty 2.0
When Chung first joined the Patriots as a second-round draft pick in 2009, his talent was apparent but on display rather unevenly. Serving as a versatile starter in New England’s secondary that was used at both safety positions and as a slot cornerback, Chung played some good football but also failed to live up to his draft status. Eventually, he took his talents to Philadelphia in 2013 in hopes of turning his career around.
He did that, but not until after returning to his old stomping grounds just one year later. Now being moved to the “star” position as a hybrid safety/linebacker, Chung flourished and thus helped the Patriots defense turn the corner after a string of disappointing seasons.
New England won the Super Bowl in Chung’s first year back, and did it again after the 2016 and 2018 seasons. Having him available in those games and during the seasons leading up to them made a difference for New England. The Patriots’ aggressive defensive style worked in part because of his presence right in the middle.
Adrian Phillips and company will have to step up
With Chung no longer part of the equation, New England will turn to its next generation to fill his shoes. Three players in particular stand out as candidates to take over, even though it remains to be seen which role the team eventually has in mind for the first two of them: Kyle Dugger, Jalen Mills and Adrian Phillips.
Phillips was the primary benefactor of Chung opting out last year, playing a similar role down in the box and finishing the year with more than 700 defensive snaps. He appears to be tailor-made to continue in this role, but New England also could turn to Dugger and Mills to offer some relief: the two have played the strong safety role as well in the past, while also offering the versatility to move all over the defensive backfield.
Either way, losing Chung puts more pressure on the Patriots’ defense as a whole. Not only will his on-field contributions have to be replaced, the leadership void also is a sizable one left to be filled.
The Patriots might wait until June to process the move
As is the case with every transaction this one too has a financial fallout. Not only does it remove Chung from the roster and payroll, it also creates different-looking salary cap hits depending on when it is processed.
Miguel Benzan explained the difference between the retirement being processed immediately, and after June 1:
(1/2) If Patrick Chung's retirement is processed after June 1, his 2021 dead money would be $3,283,333. His 2022 dead money would be $3,679,891 and he comes off the books for the 2023/2024 seasons.— Cap Space = $26,079,449 before some 3/15 signings (@patscap) March 18, 2021
2021 cap savings - $850K.
2022 savings - $316,666
2023 - $2.4M
2024 - $2.4M.
Considering the expected rise in salary cap in future years, the Patriots could very well decide to wait until the June 1 deadline to process Chung’s retirement to create some more cap space this season. While they do have plenty of money available as is, pushing that can down the road a bit might be the smarter decision.
The Coronavirus return group just got smaller again
The Patriots saw a league-high eight players opt out of the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but three of them will not return next year: offensive tackle Marcus Cannon was traded to the Houston Texans; wide receiver Marqise Lee was cut; Chung announced his retirement.
Of the other five players, only linebacker Dont’a Hightower can be seen as a relatively safe bet to be on the 2021 roster. The same cannot be said for running back Brandon Bolden, tight end Matt LaCosse, fullback Danny Vitale and guard Najee Toran.