No team in the NFL was more impacted by player opt-outs than the New England Patriots, from a sheer numbers standpoint or in terms of premier players. A league-high eight Patriots elected to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, including three key starters -- right tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung.
With the start of the regular season now less than a month away and training camp already underway, Bill Belichick and his coaching staff will have to make quick work to help cushion the blow of those three losses on top of a handful of other role players. Of course, New England, after gaining a ton of cap space due to these opt-outs, could dip their toes into the free agent waters to bolster some areas that have been impacted by these losses, but if they're looking in-house, there are a number of options at each spot.
Below you'll see five of the more high-profile players on New England's roster that have opted out and a breakdown of who could be competing to replace them when the 2020 season actually kicks off. The names you won't see below are running back Brandon Bolden, offensive lineman Najee Toran, and fullback Danny Vitale. Bolden was set to be a depth piece in an already crowded backfield and was mostly going to be looked at on special teams, which can be filled by other role players. Toran was a reserve player and Vitale, who was primed to be James Develin's replacement, may not have seen much action, especially if Cam Newton wins the starting quarterback job, creating more opportunity for RPOs.
A big theme to nearly all of these replacements is youth. Whether it was through the draft or in the undrafted free agent market, the Patriots do have some intriguing options to fill the shoes of some primetime players. If they hit on some of them, it could benefit the franchise for years to come.
Marcus Cannon, right tackle
Marcus Cannon will be a tricky player to replace for New England. In an ideal world, Yodny Cajuste would slot into his spot at right tackle, giving the Patriots youth at the position after the 24-year-old was selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. But, Cajuste may be a bit too green to simply jump right into the starting position after spending all of his rookie season on injured reserve. New England should give him every opportunity to seize the job, but, if he's unable to, they could look at Korey Cunningham. The veteran was acquired by the club last season but played sparingly.
One out-of-the box idea that has come to light is possibly swinging starting left guard Joe Thuney over to right tackle. He has played the position at the NFL level before when the club has been in a bind and was a left tackle at NC State. Of course, that would eliminate an All-Pro left guard from his natural spot, but if it's better for the club as a whole, that could also be an avenue to explore. Thuney was also open to the idea while speaking to reporters on Wednesday.
Patrick Chung, safety
In passing scenarios, the Patriots typically play in Cover 1, leaving Devin McCourty as the deep safety in centerfield and Chung comes down in the box to cover tight ends and help stop the run, that latter area is what we'll be focusing on when looking for a Chung replacement. If you're looking for youth, Dugger is a natural choice here. He was New England's top selection at the 2020 draft and even at the time was billed as the heir apparent to Chung as a strong/box safety in the Patriots' secondary. Similar to Cajuste above, however, he could also be a bit too inexperienced to come out of the gate as the starter after playing his college ball at D-II Lenoir-Rhyne.
As for someone who has a bit more experience and decent upside, Adrian Phillips is someone to keep an eye on here. His 2019 season took a solid dent due to a broken arm that found him on IR, but he has the skillset to take on some of Chung's workload. While a broken arm to a chunk out of his 2019 campaign, he isn't far removed from a 2018 season where he recorded a career-high 94 total tackles.
Dont'a Hightower, linebacker
In-house replacement: Ja'Whaun Bentley
The Patriots' linebacker unit was gutted this offseason when you combine Hightower's decision to opt out and the departure of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts in free agency. That is a massive amount of production, snaps, and veteran play to what was the top-ranked defense in the league last season. As it specifically relates to Hightower, third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley is the candidate most likely to take over his role in the middle of New England's defense. Inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has already spoken glowingly about Bentley and the 23-year-old does have a history that would suggest he's up for the task.
After being selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of Purdue, Bentley enjoyed a strong camp that flashed him being more than just the run-stopping linebacker that he was billed as coming out of college. His knowledge and feel for New England's system were also apparent early on during his rookie campaign as he started in two of his first three contests and was even seen wearing the green dot on his helmet to signify that he was calling out the defensive signals. Unfortunately for Bentley, he suffered a torn biceps early in the season in 2018 that derailed his rookie year. He was able to come back in 2019 and remain healthy but was sort of lost in the shuffle behind the veterans he's now asked to help replace.
While this position may be the most hollow following the offseason, Bentley is the surest thing out of this group of players looking to replace opted-out players.
Matt LaCosse, tight end
When the Patriots were quick to sign LaCosse at that start of free agency last offseason, some (myself included) looked at that as a signal from the club that they were eager to tap into the potential of the 6-foot-6, 255 pounder, who showed promise with the Broncos in limited action in 2018. It never really materialized in 2019, however, and the tight end group as a whole for the Patriots gave little to no production. With New England double-dipping at the position at the draft with Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, LaCosse was likely going to be just a veteran piece as the two youngsters began paving their NFL careers so his loss isn't too substantial.
Specifically, with Asiasi, he has an opportunity to be New England's starting tight end right out of the gate, given his skill set. At UCLA, the 2020 third-round pick caught 44 passes for 641 yards and four touchdowns. He's arguably the best pass-catching tight end the Patriots have on the roster and also has promise as a blocker. As long as he continues making positive steps, he could enjoy a strong rookie season.
Marqise Lee, wide receiver
Marqise Lee was a lottery ticket signing for New England as the club inked him to a one-year deal to see if he could get back to the player he was back in 2016 and 2017 before dealing with various knee injuries over the last couple of seasons. The Patriots already have their top-three receivers accounted for (Julian Edelman, N'Keal Harry, and Mohamed Sanu), but Lee could have figured in somewhere after that, if healthy. With him out of the picture, it gives a greater chance for a trio of other Patriots to make the opening roster.
Damiere Byrd is the newest addition to this group after the Patriots signed him to a one-year deal back in March. His best year as a pro came in 2019 as a member of the Arizona Cardinals, catching 32 balls for 359 yards and a touchdown in 11 games played. He also has a history with Cam Newton, playing his first three years in Carolina, which may help him in a hunt for targets. Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, meanwhile, are the two other notables looking for targets and the two 2019 undrafted free agents already have a year in the system under their belts.