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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Fri Sep 25 - 12:00 AM | Sun Sep 27 - 10:40 AM

Patriots Unfiltered Q&A: Who replaces Hightower and what to do with the added cap space?

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Why does Ja'Whaun Bentley get absolutely no attention when people discuss options at LB following the departures of Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, and now the opt-out of Dont'a Hightower? Pre-injury he showed great potential his rookie year before being buried on the depth chart last year as a sophomore.
Mike Aboud

I will address this in a couple of ways. First, I disagree that Bentley hasn't received any attention this offseason. He was a player we highlights earlier in the offseason on Patriots.com and many have talked about him as being the top option as a replacement on the inside. He did show a lot of promise during the preseason of his rookie season, and then he was injured and missed most of the regular season. Last year many, myself included, felt he would be a regular part of the rotation but instead was more of a role player given the talent ahead of him on the depth chart. But now Bentley should be a starter and see a lot of action in the middle of the defense. He will need to improve in coverage in order to stay on the field all three downs, but given the lack of depth now with all the departures he may need to stay out there regardless. Bentley is entering his third season and should be ready to fill a full-time role. The defense really needs that to happen, and he has the tools to succeed.
Paul Perillo

Given Marcus Cannon's decision to opt-out do you see the Patriots re-signing Marshall Newhouse, who is still available? He wasn't great but surely it's better to go with the devil you know at this point.
Tom Hutchinson

I believe the right tackle position is the greatest concern on the roster at this point following Cannon's decision to opt out. I felt the swing tackle position was a glaring need even with Cannon still in the fold, so now the urgency to find some alternatives increases greatly. Yodny Cajuste, a third-round pick in 2019, was likely the top candidate for that third tackle role, but asking him to start immediately would be risky. The Patriots could look at Newhouse or another former Patriot, LaAdrian Waddle, as free agent options. Veterans Donald Penn, Cordy Glenn and Demar Dotson are also available and shouldn't be too costly. But with Cajuste and Korey Cunningham as the top options currently on the roster it would appear that Belichick may feel the need to make a move. Newhouse struggled at times last year but I felt he was unfairly blamed for some inconsistent performances up front all season. He's by no means a Pro Bowler but he should be a viable option should Belichick look to bring someone in.
Paul Perillo

With players opting out of this season over health concerns, how will this affect teams' salary caps next year? I understand the player gets either 150k or 350k depending on health risk, does the remainder of their salary move to next year's cap, or is it available for the team to use this year?
Tony Vinci

A lot of these issues are still being haggled over but it seems we've finally gotten at least some resolutions to these questions. Teams receive the salary cap relief for players opting opt for this season, plus any prorated signing bonus money that was due to impact the cap in 2020. In others words, Dont'a Hightower's prorated signing bonus now comes off this year's cap and is moved to 2020. The $150,000 and $350,000 payments must be repaid by the player next year in the event that those individuals do not make the team. So the Patriots will wind up with considerably more cap space in 2020 (currently around $35M) than they expected. But they also push a lot of that money to 2021, a year in which the cap is expected to drop due to the lost revenues created by the current pandemic. Therefore it would make sense if the Patriots opted to use some of that additional space now but also saved some for next season, moving some forward to help offset the expected decrease.
Paul Perillo

Players receiving the $150,000 payments have the contracts toll to 2021 and therefore teams get the cap relief. What effect does this have on the salary cap?
Thomas Clarke

Similar to what Tony was just asking, the contracts do indeed toll for Hightower and of the others (Cannon would be an exception). That means the Patriots get the cap space that was to be taken up by these players immediately. I believe Miguel of PatsCap fame has New England's current total in the neighborhood of $35 million, which is plenty to work with at this time. I wouldn't expect the Patriots to use all that space, though, because the cap will drop next season and it would be wise to move some additional space from 2020 to 2021. While losing the players for the season is certainly not ideal, the added flexibility with the cap at least provides an avenue for the team to try to improve.
Paul Perillo

Quite a few veteran Patriot players are suddenly opting out of the season for COVID reasons, with perhaps more players to come. With Bill Belichick being a coach/GM that doesn't "appreciate" players doing unexpected and upsetting things at critical times, you have to wonder if we've seen the last of some of these aging veterans in a Patriots uniform. What are the chances that some (or even most) of these players that opt out will not be brought back by the Pats next year, either via trade or an outright release?
Tony Ess

I think there's a better than average chance that some of the veterans in that group won't be back next year but it has absolutely nothing to do with Belichick not "appreciating" players doing unexpected things. First, who expected a pandemic to impact our lives the way it has? So having a player decide to opt out because of uncertainty surrounding our current situation is more than understandable. Second, some of those players are nearing the end of the line. It's possible that some combination of Hightower, Patrick Chung, Brandon Bolden and Marcus Cannon all decide to retire. It's just a fact of life for NFL players nearing their mid-30s, especially ones who have played for the Patriots and been a part of so many playoff games over the years. I just don't think Belichick would vindictively look at this situation and release these players because of their decisions to opt out. In fact he said just the opposite when he spoke to the media last Sunday, respecting all of their decision and doing what was right for them.
Paul Perillo

There is a lot of cap space being freed up in 2020 with a few big contract Patriots opting out for the season. Do you think we will see Bill try to land a FA like Jadeveon Clowney to bolster our depleted pass-rush now that he has more financial flexibility?
Ryan Wolfe

I personally would love to see it as I feel the pass rush is a major area of need. However, it looks like Clowney is looking for big money and I doubt Belichick would want to invest too heavily in a guy like Clowney who has tremendous talent but has also dealt with injuries and some inconsistency during his career. I would like to see if he would be agreeable to a two- or three-year deal with some incentives – that way Clowney could get his money if he produces and the Patriots would have him moving forward even if this season winds up being shortened due to the pandemic. I've always loved Clowney's athleticism and when motivated he can wreck a game. But he appears content to wait for a huge deal and I'm not sure the Patriots will go in that direction.
Paul Perillo

I feel the players who opted out of this season have played their last downs as Patriots. The only way I don't see that happening is if the whole season should get cancelled. Do you agree? Any speculation about how Bill feels about these opt-outs?
Robert Naegele

I can only go by what Belichick said about the situation and he seemed to understand the gravity of the matter. This is what he had to say last Sunday when asked about the opt outs: "I respect all of them, and I respect all the players on our team. We all have to make decisions. I talked to those guys and they explained their situation, and they had to make the decision that was best for them, and I totally respect and support it 100 percent." That doesn't sound like a guy who is upset at his players at all. Now, as I just mentioned, some of those players are nearing the end of the line so if they opt to retire after sitting out it wouldn't be stunning. But I also could see Chung in particular come back refocused and reenergized after sitting out and coming back with a chip on his shoulder. We'll see where this group is come 2021, but if you're asking me now the only one I don't expect back is Cannon. I felt heading into camp that 2020 would be his last, but by no means am I ruling him out going forward.
Paul Perillo

Do you think first round players who didn't get their 5th year option picked like Corey Davis, Haason Reddick and Jarrad Davis would be a fit?
Gregorio Ladeira

Just because their options weren't picked up doesn't make them available. They're all under contract to their teams in 2020. Teams sometimes decline the options and then sign long-terms deals that better fit into the structure they're looking for. Assuming those guys become free agents in 2021, which is a pretty big assumption, I'd be very interested in Corey Davis. I feel he's been inconsistent for the Titans but has shown the ability to be successful. I also am mindful of his success against the Patriots – he lit up Stephon Gilmore in 2019 – which often seems to be something that Belichick pay special attention to. He would be a young and viable option at wide receiver going forward, but he also would be an unrestricted free agent next year and would be open to the highest bidder.
Paul Perillo

The loss of Hightower really hurt. Are there any free agent linebackers we could pick up to help replace him?
Malcolm Widness

There's no doubt that the loss of Hightower is huge. As an inside linebacker he was the guy who communicated the calls, and his ability to play inside and out both against the run and as a pass rusher will be hard to replace. That said there are some linebackers currently available via free agency. Alec Ogletree is one name I've been interested in. He's been a very active part of the defense for both the Rams and the Giants during his seven seasons. He's been able to rack up over 100 tackles while also playing well in coverage (12 career picks). I think he would make some sense, not necessarily to replace Hightower but to give the defense a veteran presence at the position. Nigel Bradham would also fall into this category. Wesley Woodyard, Mark Barron and Darron Lee also are available, so there are options if Belichick chooses to go that way.
Paul Perillo

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