After an eventful few days, the New England Patriots did not see any new opt-outs on Thursday, the final day of the deadline. Despite this being the case, the Patriots still led the league with total opt-outs (eight). Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, tackle Marcus Cannon, safety Patrick Chung, running back Brandon Bolden, tight end Matt LaCosse, fullback Dan Vitale, receiver Marqise Lee and guard Najee Toran all decided to sit out the upcoming season.
While the deadline has come and gone, this is not necessarily the end of opt-outs. If a player decides not to play during the upcoming season, they can technically do so by retiring. Doing so would mean forfeiting their salary and passing up on the stipend ($150,000 or $350,000 for those with prior medical issues that puts them at risk). Players may also have to return part of their signing bonus. This makes opting out unlikely, but possible depending on how the NFL handles the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who Will Have to Step Up?
With Hightower opting out, New England has now lost three key members of their 2019 linebacker core (Hightower, Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy). There will be a lot of pressure on Ja’Whaun Bentley to step up in their absence and claim the middle linebacker role. Besides Bentley, sophomore Chase Winovich (5.5 sacks in 2019) and rookies Jose Uche and Anfernee Jennings will likely be trusted with larger workloads than expected.
As for the offensive line, there are pros and cons to Marcus Cannon’s decision to opt-out. Cannon obviously played an integral role in New England’s offensive line, but at 32 years-old his best seasons are behind him. His $9.6 million cap hit also comes off the books with his decision to sit out, opening up doors for New England to make some trades or moves in free agency. It also creates an opportunity for 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste, who missed all of last season with an injured quad. Even if Cajuste doesn’t work out, New England now has considerable cap space to look elsewhere.
With Dan Vitale opting out, Jakob Johnson is the likely candidate to fill in at fullback, with rookie Dalton Keene as a possibility as well. They both have different strengths, and Keene is probably the long-term answer at the position. Johnson likely has the edge this year though.
Matt LaCosse and Marqise Lee’s decision to opt-out won’t hurt New England that much, as they have solid depth at both the tight end and wide receiver position.
New England Has Cap Space to Play With
After the eight official opt-outs, the Patriots have $35 million to work with. They could use it on free agents to help fill gaps now, or choose to carry it over to next season, which seems more likely.
As the 2020-2021 NFL season approaches, only one thing is certain: Rosters can change considerably at a moment’s notice, and teams with the depth and capability to adapt to these changes will have a huge edge on their competition.
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