The “next man up” philosophy that the Patriots and Bill Belichick have preached for the last twenty years has never been more prevalent. With Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden, and Dan Vitale all choosing to opt-out of the 2020 season, the Patriots depth chart has taken an absolute beating. Not to mention the fact that Tom Brady, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Duron Harmon are all playing elsewhere this season. From all reports, it seems like there won’t be any more opt-outs, but things are always fluid during this pandemic.
Hightower is obviously the most impactful loss. Linebacker was already a thin position on the roster, and losing the most talented and productive player at that spot has thrown a wrench in the Patriots plan.
Not only have the Patriots lost Hightower on the field, but they also lose his leadership in the locker room. The same goes for Patrick Chung who acts as a coach on the field in numerous scenarios.
With that being said, let’s go through each player and analyze how Belichick will try to replace them.
Ja’Whaun Bentley would seem to be the best candidate step into the Mike linebacker spot this season, although that change may have been happening whether Hightower was present or not. Hightower’s role this season likely would have been as the strong-side linebacker, lining up on both the edge and off-the-ball. Logic would assume that Bentley would now take on the off-the-ball snaps, and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings would be given the first crack to take over Hightower’s job on the edge. Chase Winovich will also have a sizable role in 2020, however, he is strictly an edge player. Jennings would be my pick to win that job, as the former Alabama linebacker is a bigger and sturdier presence on the edge than Uche, making him the best fit to stop the run on early downs. I expect Uche to fill the role left by Kyle Van Noy or Jamie Collins as weak side linebacker. In theory, the roles left by Hightower, Collins, and Van Noy should be replaced by Bentley, Winovich, Jennings, and Uche. The position is razor-thin behind those four, and I expect a veteran signing or to before camp starts (Clowney anyone?)
Luckily, the Patriots are still pretty loaded at the safety spot, especially the “in-the-box” hybrid linebacker role. Adrian Phillips and Terrance Brooks are the top candidates to replace Chung, with Phillips seemingly the favorite. Kyle Dugger, the second-rounder out of Lenoir-Rhyne, is the wild card. I wouldn’t expect Dugger beat out Phillips for Week 1, but if he continues to develop, I could envision a mid-to-late season scenario where he’s playing a significant role in the back end. Either way, losing Chung and Harmon this off-season is going to force Dugger into early playing time whether he is ready or not.
Cannon is coming off of a down year and was my pick this season for a surprise cut. I would be very surprised if Cannon played another game as a Patriot, as his salary and performance level are spiking in opposite directions. The Patriots red-shirted 3rd-round tackle Yodny Cajuste last season, and he comes into camp as the most logical replacement for Cannon. Another possible scenario is shifting Joe Thuney over to right tackle, and starting one of Hjalte Froholdt, Michael Onwenu, or Jermaine Eluemunor at left guard. In any scenario, the Patriots will find a way to put their five best offensive linemen on the field. Behind Cajuste, who hasn’t played in a single NFL practice, the Pats have very little. I’d be shocked if a veteran tackle wasn’t brought in soon to compete (think Cordy Glenn, or LaAdrian Waddle).
The loss of Vitale puts the fullback job squarely in the hands of Jakub Johnson, provided the Pats’ don’t bring in another body before Week 1. Rookie tight end Dalton Keene is another guy who could see some action, although his skill set is better suited as a receiving presence than a downhill blocker.
The Patriots are fully stocked at running back, but they will certainly miss the special teams playmaking and leadership Bolden brings. Whether its a blocked punt or a fumble recovery, Bolden is seemingly always around the ball. His loss solidifies Rex Burkhead’s spot as both a running back and a core special teamer.