The New England Patriots’ roster took a sizable hit this week as five prospective contributors elected to opt out of the 2020 NFL season over concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale, right tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung, along with guard Najee Toran, will sit out the upcoming season. In order to maintain success, the Patriots will need immediate contributions from rookies and some major second-year leaps to fill the void left by those five players.
Ideally, these five young Patriots players would help to replace Bolden, Vitale, Cannon, Hightower and Chung:
RB Damien Harris
Harris, a 2019 third-round pick out of Alabama, barely played as a rookie but could wind up being Bolden’s 1-for-1 swap on offense and special teams. He doesn’t have the veteran’s experience in the kicking game, but he certainly could help in that facet, and Harris provides more upside as an offensive player. Bolden had just 24 touches for 179 yards with four touchdowns last season.
If starting running back Sony Michel isn’t healthy for the start of training camp, Harris could have the opportunity to earn a much bigger role in the Patriots’ offense to start the summer.
FB Jakob Johnson
Johnson came to the Patriots as an International Pathway Program player last offseason. He impressed in training camp, earned a practice squad spot and was elevated to the main roster before going down with a season-ending injury. Now he’s the frontrunner to replace retired fullback James Develin after Vitale’s opt-out.
Johnson will have some competition for the fullback spot from rookie tight ends and a potential veteran signing, but as of this minute, it’s his job to lose. Johnson provides more athleticism than Develin, but he needs to prove himself as a dependable lead blocker first.
OT Yodny Cajuste
Cajuste, another 2019 third-round pick, has yet to practice with the Patriots in his brief career. He was one of few New England players allowed in the Gillette Stadium facility during the pandemic since he was rehabbing a quad injury that held him out his entire rookie campaign.
In an ideal world, Cajuste would take over Cannon’s spot at right tackle and hold that role for the foreseeable future. But the Patriots haven’t seen Cajuste play since he was a senior at West Virginia in 2018. A lot has to happen over the next month for him to fill in for Cannon, but that should certainly be the course of action New England is hoping for.
LB Josh Uche
The Patriots took Uche 60th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Michigan. He played both outside and inside linebacker as a part-time player for the Wolverines, but the Patriots should be hoping to see him eventually take on a full-time role in the NFL.
If everything had gone according to plan this offseason, Uche would have been a situational player in the Patriots’ defense as a rookie. But with Hightower opting out and Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts out of the equation, the Patriots have major voids to fill at linebacker. It would certainly be a learning process, but Uche has the most upside out of any New England linebacker. If he catches on quickly, he’d be the best choice to fill in for Hightower as a starter this season. It’s not as if he has substantial competition.
S Kyle Dugger
Dugger was the Patriots’ top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he now has the chance to earn an immediate starting role on defense after Chung’s opt-out. He’ll be competing with Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips, among other players, for that spot, but Dugger certainly has the highest potential.
He’s big, fast and can provide at least some of the versatility Chung offered at safety by playing in the box as a pseudo-linebacker and covering tight ends. He also potentially could help fill the void left by Duron Harmon’s departure via trade as a free safety fill-in.
As with Cajuste and Uche, the Patriots should be rooting for Dugger to beat out other players for a starting spot. It’s a tough ask, but it’s not as if the Patriots’ roster is flush with talent right now. Harris, Cajuste, Uche and Dugger all have potential. It’s why they were Day 2 picks in their respective drafts. Now they have to catch on quickly to help a Patriots team in desperate need for players with high upside.