The Patriots will miss much more veteran stability in the 2020 NFL season than Tom Brady. The team learned just before the training camp that it would lose three other old starters – within linebacker Dont’a Hightower, proper tackle Marcus Cannon and safety Patrick Chung – who are opting out due to concerns over COVID-19.
New England faced different prospects in the first two positions. With linebacker, Hightower’s absence stacks up on losing linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts into free service earlier in the free season. In the offensive line, the team expected to be in full strength with left tackle Isaiah Wynn and center David Andrews coming back from injuries.
Instead, there is a bigger challenge on the all-important second level of Bill Belichick’s defense and a sudden blocking void to fill. Belichick was already facing his toughest coaching job to date without Brady. Hightower and Cannon aren’t that hard to replace, but the patriots should be a little more concerned now about something other than Jarrett Stidham vs. Cam Newton at the camp.
With Hightower gone, the Patriots miss a versatile defensive leader who has just earned his second Pro Bowl nod for his 29-year season. He gave them 5.5 bags and 71 total tackles in 2019 for his productive year since 2014.
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Recall that Hightower, along with Van Noy and Roberts, were the Patriots’ three starting linebackers for their most recent game, losing the wildcard playoff to the Titans. The Patriots are running a hybrid defense and are expected to play a combination of 4-3 and 3-4 based on opponent in 2020. In both schemes, Hightower (6-3, 260 pounds) would have been used to raise the rising star J’Whaun flanking Bentey with a similar size (6-2, 255 pounds), leadership qualities and natural numbness, with some untapped benefits in pass defense.
Without Hightower, Collins, Van Noy, Roberts, Danny Shelton and Michael Bennett, the Patriots are trying to recover 25.5 of their 47 bags from last season. Second-year player Chase Winovich is the new leading asset in their pass rush through the committee and, along with John Simon, can meet the needs of the team at either end or outside linebacker, in the spots cleared by Collins and Van Noy.
The patriots had the foresight to add similar design help with rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. Uche can be the ultimate situational chess piece for Belichick when passing downs. Jennings is a physical, strong run topper with some burst to the QB in the Van Noy mold. Given the overall inexperience of the group, the Patriots also brought in the former Jet Brandon Copeland for more seasoned depth.
In addition, the Patriots added two linebacker-style protections in former Charger Adrian Phillips and rookie second-rounder Kyle Dugger in the aftermath of the Duron Harmon trade to the Lions. Phillips has a history as a prolific tackler, while Dugger has a wide range, capable of standing in the back of the line and playing in both linebacker and cornerback support.
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Now those moves take on more significance with Chung joining Hightower and Cannon opting out of the season. However, unlike Hightower and Cannon, Chung showed a serious decline last season, and Dugger gives the Patriots a lot more fun alongside Devin McCourty.
The loss of Hightower will hurt the most because it is unknown and reliable. But in terms of restarting the center of the defense and the pass rush, the patriots are well positioned to compensate should Belichick chase all of these talented, highly athletic youngsters.
Gun replacement is a bit trickier for the offense, as the patriots can’t do it on a commission basis.
Moving the dominant left guard Joe Thuney is an option, but there is an option to weaken two positions. The Patriots could head out to bring back the former Cannon fill-in La’Adrian Waddle and know that the other four-fifths of their line will help improve his game after the team’s dropoff with Marshall Newhouse at the left tackle last season survived.
The interim solution would be to plug a recent concept pick into Cannon’s place, either 2018 seventh-rounder Korey Cunningham, 2019 third-rounder Yodny Cajuste or newcomer sixth-rounder Justin Herron. Given that Cannon is 32 and will only be under contract in 2021, one of those three could turn into a promising long-term replacement in a short-term battle.
For most teams, losing two key starters so close to the season would cause great confusion and concern. However, the patriots are better prepared than most teams because of their constant search for specific role players who can ‘do their job’.
Their free agent who walked to linebacker made sure they looked further ahead with their youth movement and attacking their returning health up front softened the blow that they didn’t have Cannon, something they previously addressed. Not surprisingly, such successful adaptations are nothing new in New England.