“May you live in interesting times” reported to be an ancient Chinese curse, is certainly an apt description of what is going on right now at Gillette. The Patriots have at least three times the number of players opt-out from the league this year than any other team.
With Pat Chung, Dont’a Hightower, Brandon Bolden, Marcus Cannon, Danny Vitale, and Najee Toran all opting out of the 2020 season, the Patriots defense, the strength of the team last year, is now facing a lot of question marks, and right smack in the middle of what was a huge area of strength last year.
But before we look at the on-field aspect of what transpired, we’d be remiss if we didn’t say that those people who are A. saying this is a Bill Belichick master scheme or B. slamming the players’ decisions to opt-out need to step back a bit. This isn’t a decision that any of them take lightly.
The very fact that some dolts are saying Belichick is master-minding a huge opt-out just goes to show how deep he is in many of the heads around the league…child please. But as to the players opting out…they are opting for family over football, and rightfully so.
Cannon had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma a few years ago, and would be considered in the high-risk category. Several others just had babies born into their families. And the uncertainty that surrounds this pandemic and disease, and yes there are plenty of uncertainties with the coronavirus. No one knows about long-term implications and players with young babies in their family, don’t want to risk bringing that home with them.
And in the case with Hightower, Chung, and Bolden, players who have won Super Bowls and have made a lot of money (Hightower and Chung), is it worth it to risk your family’s well-being when no one really knows how this will play out? They have the financial wherewithal to err on the side of caution, and no one should fault them for doing so.
The Patriots defense has now taken a huge hit. As we wrote yesterday, Hightower’s loss will be keenly felt. Having already lost Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins earlier this spring, now all three starting linebackers from last year are gone. Hightower played huge roles in all three of their last Super Bowl wins, hence the moniker “Mr. February” given to him by Bill Belichick.
The linebacker position was one of the strengths of this team a year ago. No longer. With all three starters gone, they can’t even call on Elandon Roberts who played a role as a sub as he too is now gone.
The depth has taken a big hit. Ja’Whaun Bentley will now be relied upon to produce and stay healthy in the middle. He’s joined by UDFAs Cassh Maluia and De’Jon Harris. Bentley will probably be the signal-caller for the defense but the depth is not there any longer.
Second-year player Chase Winovich, who was thought to be primed for a bigger role in 2020, is now going to be asked to take on much more responsibility. Veteran John Simon will join him on the edge, but behind them they have inexperience. Josh Uche, Shalique Calhoun, Derek Rivers, Tashawn Bower.
Depending on how they use Brandon Copeland who came over from the Jets, as well as rookie Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall will depend on the scheme, the play call, and how the opposition lines up. Copeland and Jennings could move inside at times, but the linebacker group is going to be very different looking than a year ago.
The loss of Chung is another blow. Since he came back to the Patriots for his second stint, he’s been invaluable as a box safety, run stuffer, and hybrid linebacker. He can cover tight ends and is a very sure tackler. Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks, or rookie Kyle Dugger could be asked to step into that role. Dugger was the Patriots’ first choice for exactly that reason, however, going from tiny Lenoir-Rhyne to starting in the NFL without the benefit of OTAs, minicamps, and no preseason is a very big jump.
Jeff Howe of The Athletic said (with a caveat) that this is expected to be the end of the Patriots opting out for the season. By the tone of their podcast a few days ago, the McCourty twins were having serious second thoughts about playing this year. If those two decide to opt-out, that would put the defense from dangerous condition to critical.
The strength of the defense is the secondary, but with the linebacker position now decimated by offseason losses and opting out, it puts them into a precarious position. The Patriots don’t have a “designated” pass rusher. Their pass rush has always been scheme related where they move players around taking advantage of their versatility to produce favorable matchups. Much of that versatility is gone. And it is going to be up to several younger, more inexperienced players to step up in a big way in 2020.
More Patriots News Headlines: