Can New England Patriots overcome players opting out this season?

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 21: Patrick Chung #23 of the New England Patriots signs autographs for fans after defeating the Buffalo Bills 24-17 in the game at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 21: Patrick Chung #23 of the New England Patriots signs autographs for fans after defeating the Buffalo Bills 24-17 in the game at Gillette Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images) /

As of this writing, Dont’a Hightower, Marcus Cannon, Patrick Chung, Brandon Bolden, Dan Vitale and Najee Toran have opted out of this NFL season. The New England Patriots already had major departures during this offseason- and it seems the bleeding still hasn’t stopped.

When free agency began back in March, Tom Brady leaving New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the biggest story line in all of sports. From that point, the narrative became, “How can the Patriots compete at an elite level without the cornerstone to their offense?”

While every New Englander was still in shock over Brady’s departure, most of the Patriots’ linebacking corps walked out the door with him.

Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all signed with other teams during free agency and left a giant hole in the middle of New England’s defense. The saving grace in their departures was Dont’a Hightower still being on the team, and…now that’s gone as well.

Hightower is a leader in New England’s locker room and was expected by many to play a role similar to what Jerod Mayo played late in his career where he helped coach up Hightower and Jamie Collins. Chase Winovich, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are all young linebackers who could use a coach on the field like Hightower, and now, with his absence, their development will surely be hindered.

Linebacker was the only questionable group on defense for the Patriots leading up to the season, as the defensive line and secondary were both set to star many familiar faces from 2019. Even with the loss of Duron Harmon, who was traded to Detroit, New England’s secondary still had two starting safeties who helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls.

Now that Patrick Chung has also decided to opt out, for the first time since 2013, New England will have to find someone else to start alongside Devin McCourty for the entire season — if he doesn’t opt out, too.

Will the McCourty twins opt out as well?

Harmon always played a unique role in the secondary, typically as a center fielder on obvious passing downs. Chung played the more traditional strong safety position lining up at linebacker, covering tight ends one-on-one, etc.

The loss of Harmon didn’t feel like a big impact for New England, as his role wasn’t very big on the defense. Chung, however, was used more frequently and played a position that few defensive backs on the team could fill.

Now, with both players gone, it would likely open the door for rookie safety Kyle Dugger to receive a legitimate chance to start alongside McCourty for the season (once again, as long as McCourty, you know, plays). It’s a big ask for a rookie safety to be successful for the Pats. We’ve seen defensive backs like Tavon Wilson, Ras-I Dowling, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, and Duke Dawson flame out after being high draft picks by New England. Can Dugger join Harmon as being one of the success stories?

Another logical option at safety is Adrian Phillips, who New England signed this offseason after five years with the Chargers. Mainly a special teamer, he was originally viewed as a replacement for Nate Ebner after he left New England for the Giants. However, Phillips played 66% of the defensive snaps for LA in 2018, and his experience over Dugger could make Phillips a contender for New England’s vacant strong safety role.

The defense’s ability was never in question for New England up until today. It was their offense that had a million question marks, and now they have even more. Marcus Cannon had a down year last year, but for most of his time as a starter for the Pats, he has been a solid right tackle.

Where Hightower and Chung seem to be opting out in hopes of protecting family members from COVID-19, Cannon is opting out due to being considered at high risk for the virus. Cannon overcame Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma early in his NFL career after being diagnosed shortly before being drafted in 2011 by New England.

Cannon’s absence leaves a big hole in the offensive line. We saw last year how difficult it can be to produce points when the offensive line is lacking continuity. Left tackle Isiah Wynn missed several games last season, and center David Andrews missed the entire season due to a complication where blood clots formed in his lungs.

Will Andrews once again miss an entire season, seeing how he may be considered high risk as well? Backup center Ted Karras wouldn’t be able to take Andrews’ place again if he does opt out, because like Van Noy and Roberts, Karras is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.

It appears unlikely that the defense can overcome the loss of Hightower and Chung and be the sheer force of a unit that they were last season. The fact that Devin McCourty and reining DPOY Stephon Gilmore are still with the team gives New England a strong defensive unit, but it probably won’t be enough to make up for offensive woes if Newton or Stidham struggle.

With Cannon out, Wynn’s injury history and Andrews being another possible opt out candidate, how could Newton or Stidham be expected to succeed if the line in front of them is patched together? Best-case scenario is Wynn stays healthy all year and Andrews doesn’t opt out, but that feels like wishful thinking.

This offseason has been an emotional rollercoaster for the Foxborough Faithful. Cam Newton’s signing gave Pats fans about a month of hope that New England could still dominate their division and compete for a seventh Lombardi. I guess it was nice while it lasted. The list of lost key starting players from the 2019 team is getting longer by the hour.

With more possible opt outs to come, this season for New England could be a hard one to watch.

Next. 3 Players Who Won't Be on Roster After 2020. dark