Key coronavirus opt-outs leave Patriots in a very tough spot

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By WEEI 93.7

If you want to look at the glass as being half-full – honestly, though, in New England sports we rarely see the glass as half-full – the Patriots suddenly have somewhere in the rage of $30 million in cap space!

Of course it took a six-man flurry of coronavirus-driven player opt-outs for the 2020 season – led by veteran core players Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon – to secure the cap room at this late point in the offseason process.

It’s unlikely, save for a surprise dream free agent signing like Jadeveon Clowney, New England will put the cap space to significant use.

Make no mistake, Hightower, Chung, Cannon, Brandon Bolden, Dan Vitale and Najee Toran opting out of the 2020 season is a massive net-loss for the Patriots.

Losing the former captain and linebacker leader Hightower is probably the biggest blow. Less than two weeks after welcoming his first child into the world, the decision makes simple sense for the veteran playmaker but still hurts.

Combine Hightower’s opt-out with the free agent departures of Kyle Van Noy (Miami), Jamie Collins (Detroit) and Elandon Roberts (Miami) and the Patriots linebacker depth chart has been decimated in the last few months. The Boogeymen are now the Invisible Men.

Beyond his postseason and Super Bowl heroics over the years, Hightower has been the voice and heart of the Patriots front for the bulk of his eight seasons in New England. He started all 15 games he played last fall and finished second on the team with 71 tackles. Always a versatile contributor he added 5.5 sacks, tied for a team-high 12 QB hits, had four passes defensed and a fumble recovering for the NFL’s No. 1 defense.

Left in the dust of all the former counted-on contributors are plenty of young, unproven question marks. Ja’Whaun Bentley probably has the most upside of the group, but he was a forgotten role player a year ago following up a rookie season spent mostly on IR. Now? Now, he’s likely to be the playcaller, a starter and high-reps contributor, for better or worse.

Veteran free-agent addition Brandon Copeland might also be an option to pick up the slack, even if he’s spent as much time on the edge of the defense as he has off-the-ball in his career. The 6-3, 263-pound Copeland started 13 of the 28 games he played for the Jets over the last two seasons, notching a career-high 42 tackles last fall.

Beyond that it’s a pretty empty bucket of the likes of first-year player Terez Hall, undrafted rookie De’Jon and the possibility that more outside linebacker types – including rookie draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings – might have to play more off-the-ball roles at least on a rotational basis.

Like Hightower, Chung has been a core contributor and leader for years in New England. An expecting father, he may have started to show his age in coverage a bit and has been dinged up some, but he still started 12 of the 13 games he played last fall. He was eighth on the team with 51 tackles and added three passes defensed, though he did not record a sack, interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery for the first time in his 11 NFL seasons.

Though his leadership will be tough to replace – both on and off the field – there are a couple intriguing bodies to fill his spot in the lineup. Veteran free agent addition Adrian Phillips comes aboard from the Chargers and has the tools to be an in-the-box contributor. Phillips had 95 tackles two years ago for the Chargers and started five of the seven games he played last fall, missing more than half the year to a broken arm.

Maybe the most interesting if dubious option at safety is top draft pick Kyle Dugger. Trying to make the jump from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne to the NFL, Dugger has all the speed and athleticism needed if the jump in competition isn’t too much to overcome as a rookie. Once projected as a possible red-shirt option for 2020, Chung’s opt-out might put more pressure on Dugger to at least be a complementary, rotational contributor.

Though the cancer-survivor Cannon didn’t have his best year in 2019, his opt-out is also far from ideal. In theory, the Patriots were set to return five starters on the line and faced only questions about backup roles. Now, there is a hole at the right tackle spot where Cannon started all 15 games he played last fall and has been entrenched when healthy since 2015. Cannon’s absence will also be compounded by the retirement of legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia this offseason.

The options are slim to fill the big hole at right tackle. Second-year third-round pick Yodny Cajuste could be a candidate after missing his rookie season NFI, but that’s a pretty big projection at this point especially with no real offseason of workouts to lean on.

Veteran Korey Cunningham, who started six games at left tackle for the Cardinals in 2018, or sixth-round rookie Justin Herron are also less-than-desirous possibilities.

There is also the chance that Joe Thuney or Isaiah Wynn could be moved to fill the void, although shifting either guy would create a domino effect of other concerns.

Though the other opt-outs are far less impactful, Bolden and Vitale could have been depth or complementary contributors. Bolden has been a trusted veteran special teamer and backup running back throughout his New England career, including his return to Foxborough last fall that saw him tally three rushing touchdowns and another through the air. Vitale was projected to compete for the starting fullback job vacated by the retirement of Pro Bowler James Develin. Though he’s had limited NFL production, Vitale was thought to offer more versatility and productive upside at the spot.

All told the Patriots are now a much worse-off football team after the Hightower, Chung and Cannon opt-outs, in particular, and have few options with which to fill the large holes with training camp set to get under way.