As the NFL built their way to the start of a new-look training camp, the impact of players choosing to opt out of the season was inevitably going to have a significant impact on the power structure of the league. It is a tough personal decision for all the players, with each having their own unique considerations and concerns, but one they had to make.
Now, with 67 players choosing to opt out, the training camp rosters now appear to be finally set for a very different-looking NFL season. No team was greater impacted by opt-outs than the Patriots, who lost a league-high eight players. While everyone fully respects the decisions those players made, those who remain must now embark on a season fraught with challenges.
Let's break down how the Patriots might try to replace what was lost with their eight opt-outs.
One of the core leaders of the defense, Hightower's absence will create even more uncertainty at a position that was already set for a major overhaul after multiple offseason departures.
No player will be more directly affected than Ja’whaun Bentley, who should have every chance to prove his three-down ability and figures to be the main defensive playcaller for the defense. Sixth-round draft pick Cassh Mailua could also have an increased chance at getting rotational snaps on defense immediately, while undrafted rookie Scoota Harris has a golden opportunity to find a roster spot. 2019 practice squad player Terez Hall will also be right in the mix of this competition. Versatile free agent signing Brandon Copeland has experience in multiple linebacker roles and could also see increased opportunity.
Replacing Hightower on early downs is one thing, but replacing his clutch play and pass rush ability on third down is something else -- with the loss of Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, that's 19 sacks gone from last season. This will brighten the spotlight on the rookies and second-year edge players like Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.
The Patriots have a lot of young and unproven depth and the team will need multiple players to step up on the second level. Hightower will be sorely missed.
Chung is another veteran leader, and his defensive versatility has been a catalyst since his return in 2014. His ability to play multiple positions, often in a linebacker role, has been a defining feature of the Patriots defense and one that is not easily replaced.
Fortunately, the Patriots had been extremely aggressive at the safety position this offseason, signing veterans Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis as well as spending a second-round pick on Kyle Dugger. Both Phillips and Dugger have skillsets overlap with Chung's, with Phillips playing a similar role for the Chargers and showing a particular effectiveness against the Chiefs and Ravens.
But Phillips does not have the experience with the Patriots system and secondary that Chung did. There will be a curve in adapting him into the mix. The rookie Dugger is the wild card. You never expect too much out of a rookie, but Chung's absence should give him a bigger chance at playing on defense than he might've expected. Perhaps in the long-term interest of replacing Chung, it will be a good thing to immerse Dugger.
The safety group is still deep and experienced but Chung has been a mainstay and the defense just won't be the same without him.
Cannon's decision as a cancer survivor to opt out shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, it was the right call to make for the veteran tackle who doesn't have much left to prove on the field. Still, it's a pretty big blow to the Patriots offensive line that was already light on tackle depth, with Isaiah Wynn and Cannon as the only two with significant playing experience.
It was already due to be a battle for the third tackle spot between Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham and Justin Herron, now one of them could be called on to step into a starter's role. With limited depth and experience, picking up another free agent tackle could make a lot of sense. There's no quicker way to short circuit an offense than protection breakdowns and there are plenty of experienced veteran tackles out there who could still help, including former Patriots LaAdrian Waddle and Marshall Newhouse.
Bolden returned to the Patriots in 2019 after a one-year hiatus with the Dolphins and immediately picked up his versatile role as a running back, special teams player and, in a new twist, kickoff returner. Bolden was a more valuable piece than many might realize, playing a career-high 71 percent of the special teams snaps and his highest offensive snap total since 2015.
The Patriots are always scouring for special teams players and while Bolden is still underrated, the team should be able to manage his absence, though there will also be an impact off-the-field, where Bolden was very well-liked. The void he leaves at kick returner could open the door for undrafted rookies J.J. Taylor and Jeff Thomas, both of whom were excellent kick returners in college.
LaCosse had just 13 catches in his first year with the Patriots, while also missing five games as he battled an ankle injury for most of the season. While the Patriots did draft two young tight ends, LaCosse was a good veteran option to help ease their development. The Patriots could look to an external veteran for that role now, or lean on Ryan Izzo who had six catches in six games last season. Or perhaps the future is now and the team will choose to throw the two rookies right into the fire. LaCosse provided depth and might've made some strides in his second season with the team, but his absence is likely to just accelerate the rookie's assimilation.
After losing two fullbacks to injury in 2019, the Patriots added Vitale in free agency to help reinforce a position they like to incorporate more than most teams. After James Develin's retirement, it put an even bigger spotlight on Vitale and now that spotlight shifts to Jakob Johnson, a remarkable success story from 2019, as Johnson rose from being the 91st player at the start of training camp to playing in four games. The value of a fullback to the Patriots backfield can't be understated and Johnson has a prime opportunity, though rookie Dalton Keene also saw some fullback snaps in college and could be part of easing the transition as well.
Lee was joining the Patriots this season on a one-year deal after having his development sidetracked by two seasons of injuries in Jacksonville. The receiver had 119 catches in 2016 and 2017 combined, for 1,553 yards and six touchdowns and appeared to be an ascending weapons before he was held to just six games in the last two seasons. The Patriots could benefit from a new receiver breaking out and Lee had two of the better seasons of anyone on the roster. He'll be back for another shot in 2021, but the long layoff could be a factor. This improves the chances of fellow free agent Damiere Byrd, as well as returning second-year players Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, while undrafted rookies Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber and Will Hastings should see increased reps as well.
Toran was a member of New England' practice squad in 2019, and after losing two interior backup linemen this offseason, might've been in the mix to step into a bigger role in 2020. For a team that needs to build some new depth along the offensive line, losing a player that they invested a season with still stings. Second-year guard Hjalte Froholdt, rookie Michael Onwenu and veteran Jermaine Eluemanor will all be in the mix.