Patriots: How recent opt-out news affects 2021 free agency and draft

FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 27: New England Patriots Linebacker Dont'a Hightower #54 (Photo by Timothy Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 27: New England Patriots Linebacker Dont'a Hightower #54 (Photo by Timothy Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images) /

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire NFL hard, but the New England Patriots really took it on the chin, as they lost starters like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and right tackle Marcus Cannon due to opt-outs.

While the Patriots had enough depth to win seven games without these three, losing a starting safety, linebacker, and offensive lineman before the season started was a brutal blow that even the mighty Bill Belichick was unable to overcome.

While the Patriots could go in any number of different directions in the 2021 NFL Draft, as the No. 15 pick could be used to take an offensive tackle or as ammunition to trade up for a stud linebacker, these players returning the fold could completely change up what New England was planning to do.

The Patriots received some welcome boost of good news this afternoon, as they were informed all three of these veterans will return to New England for 2021 and pick up right where they left off in 2019.

The Patriots’ draft strategy could change due to the latest opt-out news.

New England has been frequently identified as a team that could take a quarterback or wide receiver, but a lack of depth at linebacker and some injuries on the offensive line wouldn’t have made it unreasonable for the front office to draft a player at either of those positions.

While Hightower and Chung are both starting to get up there in age, and Cannon by himself might not be able to salvage an offensive line that took a step backwards in 2020, this should be enough to prevent the Patriots from using their best draft pick in years at those positions.

Hightower and Josh Uche should be a more than competent tandem at linebacker. The new England secondary was still one of the league’s best, but it regressed just a tad after a dominant 2019 season. Chung and Devin McCourty will help New England form one of the best safety pairings in the league as Kyle Dugger continues to emerge.

New England has plenty of cap space this offseason, and these three returning should give Belichick the green light to spend whatever is necessary in order to get talent at the skill positions.

Any uncertainty with regards to those veterans and their status for 2020 has completely been erased. Belichick has just two goals to accomplish this offseason: get a new quarterback and some perimeter talent. The team can now use the later rounds to get their hands on some promising prospects for the other positions, and use the next year or two to groom them.