As the New England Patriots retool their roster this offseason, they should have some familiar faces back in the mix.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Friday he believes all eight New England players who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns plan to return for the upcoming 2021 campaign.
That group included four veteran stalwarts: linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Marcus Cannon and running back/special teamer Brandon Bolden, all of whom have won multiple Super Bowls with the Patriots.
Tight end Matt LaCosse, wide receiver Marqise Lee, fullback Danny Vitale and guard Najee Toran also opted out.
“From my understanding, they’ll all be back,” McCourty said on Tom E. Curran’s “Patriots Talk” podcast. “B. Bolden, High, Chung. I can’t wait. Those are my guys — Cannon. I just can’t wait to be back around those guys. Even outside of football, just seeing them every day, seeing their nice faces.”
The arrivals of safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips and versatile offensive lineman Mike Onwenu helped offset the losses of Chung and Cannon, but Hightower was sorely missed at the second level of New England’s struggling defense.
Lacking experience and depth at the linebacker position, the Patriots fielded one of the NFL’s worst run defenses. And though they ranked a respectable seventh in points allowed (22.1 per game), the Patriots dropped from first to 26th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, which measures a unit’s overall efficiency.
With the offense also sputtering under the direction of new quarterback Cam Newton, New England nosedived to a 7-9 record — their worst since 2000 — and missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
There’s no guarantee all eight returning players will make the Patriots’ roster in 2021 — Vitale, Lee and Toran never have played in a game for New England — and some might need to accept pay cuts or restructured contracts. Hightower and Cannon, whose play regressed in 2019, currently are set to carry New England’s second- and fourth-highest salary cap hits next season, respectively.