After months of penny-pinching with little to no salary cap space to speak of, the New England Patriots suddenly are flush with spending room.
Right tackle Marcus Cannon’s and outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s opt-outs have opened up roughly $15 million, now giving the Patriots around $24 million in cap space to work with.
Do you think Rex Burkhead might want to reverse that contract restructuring that saw this compensation drop for the 2020 season? Might Cam Newton want to reconsider his $1.5 million one-year contract?
The Patriots sorely will miss players like Cannon, Hightower and running back Brandon Bolden, but if there’s a small silver lining to these opt-outs, it’s the cap relief they’ll provide. The Patriots will need to replace Cannon and possibly Hightower via available free agents. Players like offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and edge defender Jadeveon Clowney still are available.
The Patriots also would be smart to carry over cap space into next season. Because of missed revenue due to at least partially empty stadiums this season, the 2021 salary cap will be lowered. Carrying over cap space would lessen the impact of that leaguewide adjustment.
But how will the Patriots replace Cannon, Hightower and Bolden in the interim with what’s available on their roster?
The Patriots still have Burkhead, Damien Harris, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor and James White at running back (for now). Harris should take on a greater role, and Taylor’s chances of making the roster have increased. The Patriots should still be fine at this position, though their special teams could take a hit.
Yodny Cajuste, Korey Cunningham and Justin Herron are behind Isaiah Wynn on the Patriots’ offensive tackle depth chart. Looks for the Patriots to add a veteran to this group, whether it’s signing a player like Glenn or bringing back a past Patriot like LaAdrian Waddle or even Marshall Newhouse.
Franchised left guard Joe Thuney also could slide to tackle, but that would create a hole at guard where the Patriots have Jermaine Eluemunor, Hjalte Froholdt and Michael Onwenu behind Thuney and Shaq Mason.
At linebacker, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland, Terez Hall, De’Jon Harris, Anfernee Jennings, Cassh Maluia, Josh Uche, Derek Rivers, John Simon and Chase Winovich will have to replace Hightower and 2019 starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, both of whom departed in free agency.
Linebacker now must be considered one of the Patriots’ weakest position groups. Out of that list of players, Bentley, Winovich, Copeland and Simon would be most prepared to start this season. Bentley is more of an inside linebacker while Winovich and Simon are edge players. Copeland, like Hightower, can play both roles.
After the 2019 season, Cannon and Hightower were considered to be potential cap casualties because of their ages and high cap hits. Clearly, the Patriots wanted to keep both players around, however, since they were still on the team as of late July.
It will be interesting if the Patriots use their cap space to help win now and bring in a big name like Clowney or begin to prepare for the 2021 season by saving it. The Patriots already were set to have plenty of cap space next season. That figure will be lowered, however, because Hightower’s contract will toll. He was set to become a free agent after this season. Now, he’ll be on the books for 2021 unless the Patriots plan to release or trade him.