How Patriots Can Replace Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Other Opt-Outs

Between 5 p.m. ET on Monday and noon ET on Tuesday, six New England Patriots players opted out of the 2020 NFL season, declining to play while the country continues to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

Included in this group are three longtime starters, another veteran mainstay and one player who was expected to earn a starting role this summer. Now, with players already beginning to report to Gillette Stadium for pre-training camp testing, head coach Bill Belichick and his staff must replace them, either with players on the roster or through outside additions.

As of 3:30 p.m. Friday, the Patriots had five open spots on their 80-man roster and roughly $24.7 million in available salary cap space.

The following six players have opted out:

Najee Toran, guard
What the Patriots lose: Not much. Toran spent most of last season on the Patriots’ practice squad and was considered a roster long shot entering camp.

How they’ll replace him: The Patriots might use one of their open roster spots to add another interior lineman, but they’re reasonably well-stocked there with Hjalte Froholdt, Jermaine Eluemunor, Michael Onwenu, Dustin Woodard and potentially Justin Herron behind expected starters Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason.

Danny Vitale, fullback
What the Patriots lose: Signed as a free agent in March, Vitale was supposed to bring a new level of athleticism and receiving ability to New England’s fullback position following James Develin’s retirement. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels likely had been scheming up ways to get the versatile 26-year-old involved in the passing game.

How they’ll replace him: Jakob Johnson, an International Pathway Program product and Develin’s initial replacement last season, will have a chance to earn the starting job in camp, though he shouldn’t be considered a roster lock. Rookie tight ends Dalton Keene (third round) and Jake Burt (undrafted) also could see reps at fullback. Tight ends coach Nick Caley had “fullbacks” added to his official job title this week, emphasizing the potential crossover between those two position groups.

Brandon Bolden, running back
What the Patriots lose: Bolden has been a stalwart in the Patriots’ kicking game for seven of the last eight seasons, save for his one-year stint in Miami. He also scored a career-high four offensive touchdowns in 2019 (three rushing, one receiving) and is a favorite of Belichick, who admitted he made a mistake by releasing Bolden ahead of the 2018 season.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to have Brandon back,” Belichick said last December. “… He’s so valuable in so many ways.”

How they’ll replace him: The ripple effects from Bolden’s opt-out will be threefold. For one, losing Bolden likely will prompt the Patriots to roster another special teams-focused player like Brandon King, Terrence Brooks or Cody Davis. Only Matthew Slater played more special teams snaps than Bolden last season, and Bolden consistently has ranked in the top five among Patriots players in that category.

Bolden’s opt-out also greatly increases undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor’s chances of making the team as the fifth running back behind Sony Michel (who’s recovering from offseason foot surgery), James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris. Taylor was one of eight UDFAs to survive New England’s first round of roster cuts. (A ninth, receiver Will Hastings, re-signed the following day.)

Finally, Bolden was the Patriots’ primary kick returner last season, so they’ll need to find someone new to handle those duties. One option is Taylor, who returned 41 kickoffs over his final two seasons at Arizona. Damiere Byrd, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas and Rex Burkhead also have kick return experience.

More Patriots: 12 Free Agents Pats Could Target After Flurry Of Opt-Outs

Patrick Chung, safety
What the Patriots lose: One of the toughest players on their roster and a longtime pillar of their defense. Chung, who had battled myriad injuries in recent years, isn’t the tight end eraser he used to be, but he’s started 97 of a possible 111 games, including playoffs, since rejoining the Patriots in 2014 and boasts the type of versatility Belichick covets.

“He’s one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team,” Belichick said in 2018. “He does a lot of things very well and has done them that way for a long time. We’re lucky we have him. He’s an outstanding player in all the things that he does. We put a lot on him, and he always comes through.”

How they’ll replace him: It wouldn’t have been surprising to see the Patriots scale back Chung’s workload this season given his age (33 in August) and injury history, and they did a nice job of restocking their safety group this offseason, using their top draft pick on versatile small-school prospect Kyle Dugger and signing Davis and Adrian Phillips in free agency.

Unless Dugger blows coaches away in camp, either Phillips or Brooks likely will start in Chung’s strong safety spot in Week 1. Brooks played well as Chung’s understudy last season before struggling in New England’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.

If the Patriots, who also traded away third safety Duron Harmon this offseason, choose to add to this group, available free agents include Tony Jefferson, Reshad Jones, Eric Reid, Morgan Burnett and Tavon Wilson.

New England has positioned slot corner Jonathan Jones at safety on occasion, and 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams has the size (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) to cover tight ends. Williams played safety in a preseason game last summer, and reportedly worked this offseason to increase his positional versatility.

Dont’a Hightower, linebacker
What the Patriots lose: Hightower’s leadership, versatility and pass-rushing ability will be extremely difficult to replicate. A longtime captain and 2019 Pro Bowler, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career, ranking second among Patriots defenders in total pressures behind Kyle Van Noy and second in tackles for loss behind Jamie Collins. With Hightower, Van Noy and Collins — all of whom can play both on the edge and off the ball — all gone, the Patriots will be without their top three pass rushers from 2019. Middle linebacker Elandon Roberts also left in free agency.

How they’ll replace him: Inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley will take on a much larger role this season. The 2018 fifth-round draft pick impressed as a rookie but was buried behind Hightower, Collins and Roberts last season, playing just 27 percent of defensive snaps. Now, he’s at the top of the totem pole and should take over Hightower’s inside linebacker spot.

Hightower’s decision also likely locked veteran newcomer Brandon Copeland into a roster spot. Unlike Bentley, who’s strictly an off-the-ball linebacker, Copeland can play on the edge, as well. So can Josh Uche, the second-round rookie who lined up all over the field at Michigan and excelled as a pass rusher. Third-round pick Anfernee Jennings primarily was an edge defender at Alabama but played off the ball in the Senior Bowl.

Sixth-round pick Cassh Maluia, undrafted rookie De’Jon Harris and 2019 practice squadder Terez Hall will compete for reps at inside ‘backer.

Phillips also played some linebacker with the Los Angeles Chargers, similar to the role Chung often filled in New England. Perhaps the 6-2, 220-pound Dugger can do the same.

Marcus Cannon, offensive tackle
What the Patriots lose: Cannon has been the Patriots’ primary right tackle since 2016. Injuries have been an issue for the 32-year-old — he hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule since 2014 — and his play began to decline in 2019, but he’s by far the most experienced tackle on New England’s roster. (Cannon, Hightower, Chung and Bolden all have won multiple Super Bowls with the Patriots.)

How they’ll replace him: This is a tricky one. Even before Cannon, who battled non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma early in his NFL career, opted out, the Patriots were lean at tackle.

Their current backup options are Korey Cunningham, who’s played seven career games and sat out nearly all of last season as a healthy scratch; 2019 third-round pick Yodny Cajuste, who had his entire rookie season wiped out by pre-draft quad surgery; 2020 sixth-rounder Justin Herron, whom many draft analysts projected as an NFL guard; and Thuney, who played tackle in college but has started all 64 of his NFL games at left guard (though he did practice at left tackle last spring and summer).

There’s a chance Cajuste, a highly touted prospect before his injury, could lock down the starting spot this summer, but the Patriots should look to add at least one veteran to this group, be it a familiar face like LaAdrian Waddle or Marshall Newhouse or another available free agent like Cordy Glenn or Demar Dotson.

Glenn is the best tackle available but has only played on the left side in his NFL career. Dotson was Tampa Bay’s starting right guard for the last eight seasons.

More Patriots: Which UDFA Has Best Chance Of Cracking Roster?

Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images

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