Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung will opt out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID-19, joining a growing list of New England players who have done the same.
With so many players opting out, not to mention Tom Brady bolting in free agency, could the Patriots finally be looking at a down season? Could they finish with a losing record for the first time since 2000?
“I’ve covered the Patriots before. I’ve spent a lot of time studying them and watching them and knowing what they do,” NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport prefaced on The DA Show. “I will never, ever, ever, ever predict a down season for the Patriots. I guess anything is possible, and if any team is ever going to take a little bit of a step back as they retool, it would be this Patriots team. But I feel like I know too much. Every time [people say], ‘Oh, man, the Patriots lost this guy. How are they ever going to make up for [that] loss?’ –whoever it is, whether it’s some big-name veteran they traded, Richard Seymour or something like that; they let Tom Brady walk. Whatever it is, the Patriots always, to me, are going to be fine.”
The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski after the 2018 season. They still started 8-0 last year and won the AFC East. In fact, they’ve won double-digit games 17 years in a row.
“Gronk is great,” Rapoport said. “But by the end of his Patriots tenure, he was just not the same guy – and the reason I know that is because that’s what he saw on film. I remember him telling me he would get sick watching himself on film because it was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ So I think some of the departures were planned. Others were not planned, such as the opt-outs. But I always think the Patriots are going to be fine until they prove me otherwise.”
With so many Patriots players opting out, though, the conspiracy theorists have been busy. Many NFL fans believe that Bill Belichick is tanking for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Rapoport does not.
“I don’t believe in tanking,” he said. “I don’t believe it works. Unless you were to convince the players playing the coaches coaching to just be terrible, I don’t think it works. The Dolphins were tanking last year. That’s what everybody thought, and then they ended up picking fifth, which is not tanking. [They were] two spots behind the Lions, who were certainly not tanking, and [one spot behind] the Giants, who played like they were tanking but didn’t mean to.
“I don’t believe in tanking,” Rapoport reiterated. “And even if the Patriots were, I don’t think there’s any chance they could be bad enough to get the No. 1 pick. To me, unless they were literally going to play with high school players, I don’t think the Patriots would ever get the No. 1 pick. So I think that’s all crazy and ridiculous. I don’t think this is part of any master plan at all.”