Of the 67 players to exercise their right to opt out of the 2020 NFL season due to the Coronavirus pandemic, a league-high eight were under contract with the New England Patriots at the time. While the opt-out meant that they would essentially simply skip the season and stay signed heading into 2021, not all of the eight will be back this year.
In fact, following Tuesday’s release of backup interior offensive lineman Najee Toran only half of the group is now scheduled to return to the club. Let’s take a closer look at them and the other four players that have left since the opt-out year ended.
LB Dont’a Hightower: Set to return. Despite having turned 31 in March, Hightower 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 for the entire unit. Getting him back should help bolster a linebacker corps that struggled throughout the 2020 season.
S Patrick Chung: Retired. The longest-tenured member of the New England defense decided to ride off into the sunset earlier this offseason. After a combined 176 career games — including 163 as a Patriot — as well as three Super Bowl rings, Chung has handed the keys over to a next generation of safeties that will be led by second-year man Kyle Dugger.
RB Brandon Bolden: Set to return. Even before the end of the 2020 season, Bolden took to social media to announce his plans to return after his opt-out. So far, he is on the track to do just that which means that he will again offer depth and experience both at the running back position and even more so in the kicking game.
OT Marcus Cannon: Traded. The writing for Cannon’s departure was on the wall even before he was traded to the Houston Texans in mid-March. Not only did the long-time starting right tackle have a hefty salary cap hit of $9.6 million, the Patriots had also re-acquired former starter Trent Brown just a few days earlier. Seeing the two sides part ways after 10 years together did therefore not come as a surprise.
TE Matt LaCosse: Set to return. Following the Patriots’ offseason investments at the tight end position — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry were acquired on multi-year free agency deals — LaCosse appears to be on thin ice. In fact, he is a realistic candidate to be the next scheduled opt-out returnee to get the proverbial axe. For the time being, however, he remains under contract and in a position to compete for a spot on the team.
FB Danny Vitale: Set to return. Vitale is in a similar boat as LaCosse, even though the competition at the fullback position is much more favorable from his perspective. That said, Jakob Johnson has proven himself a serviceable player and was retained as an exclusive-rights free agent earlier this offseason. Vitale has to show that he can be a superior player coming off the opt-out season in order to keep his job.
WR Marqise Lee: Released. Signed as a free agent shortly before the 2020 NFL Draft, Lee never actually appeared in a game for the Patriots. The former second-round draft pick opted out in early August and was released in March. Earlier this week, Lee signed a free agent pact with the San Francisco 49ers.
OL Najee Toran: Released. Finally, let’s return to the aforementioned Najee Toran. After spending his rookie campaign with 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. On Tuesday, his tenure came to an end.
Of the four players listed under the “set to return” category, only Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Bolden should be counted on to have a noticeable impact on the team in 2021. Danny Vitale and especially Matt LaCosse are on shaky ground, whereas their two teammates could be given sizable roles again this year. Hightower’s return in particular might help New England bounce back after a disappointing defensive campaign last year.