Which Of Patriots’ Returning Opt-Outs Will Be On Roster In 2021?

Eight Patriots players opted out of the 2020 NFL season

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All eight New England Patriots opt-outs reportedly plan to return this offseason.

But how many of the eight will be playing for the Patriots when the 2021 season begins in September?

Here’s a closer look at each returning player and how likely he is to crack New England’s 53-man roster after sitting out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. All salary cap info via Over the Cap.

LB Dont’a Hightower
2021 salary cap hit: $12.45 million
Losing Hightower’s versatility, production, leadership and communication was a massive blow to New England’s linebacking corps, which went from one of the NFL’s best to one of its weakest without him, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. He’s a roster lock and should provide an immediate and substantial boost to the Patriots’ defense. The Patriots are flush with salary cap space this offseason (upward of $60 million; fourth-most in the NFL) but could attempt to lower Hightower’s cap number by signing him to an extension. Of all currently signed New England players, only cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($16.3 million) has a higher 2021 cap hit. Likelihood of making roster: High

OT Marcus Cannon
2021 salary cap hit: $9.62 million
Cannon initially appeared to be a major loss given the Patriots’ lack of proven tackle depth, but Jermaine Eluemunor and, especially, sixth-round rookie Mike Onwenu proved to be more-than-adequate replacements. In fact, the Patriots’ play at right tackle actually improved with the 32-year-old Cannon — who’d shown signs of decline in 2019 — unavailable. What does that mean for Cannon’s future? New England can save $7.06 million against the cap by releasing him, so there would be a financial benefit to letting the veteran go. But if the Patriots lose Joe Thuney in free agency and opt to play Onwenu at left guard instead, they’d again be left without an obvious starter at right tackle. 2020 sixth-rounder Justin Herron showed promise as a rookie, but is he ready to take on that role? Will the Patriots look to use a high draft pick on a tackle? There are a lot of questions facing this O-line, making it difficult to project Cannon’s status at this juncture. Likelihood of making roster: Moderate

S Patrick Chung
2021 salary cap hit: $5.13 million
The arrivals of Adrian Phillips (via free agency) and Kyle Dugger (second-round draft pick) helped soften the blow of losing Chung, though his decision might have made the Patriots regret trading third safety Duron Harmon. Chung’s versatility and toughness have made him a valuable part of New England’s defense for years, but given his age (34 in August) and lengthy injury history, the Patriots could look to transition him into a smaller, more specialized role upon his return. The presence of Phillips and Dugger will lead some to speculate whether Chung could be cut, but doing so would make little financial sense for the Patriots. It actually would cost the team money to release Chung before June 1, and doing so after that date would free up $1.85 million but leave behind $3.28 million in dead money. The contract extension Chung signed last offseason runs through 2024. Likelihood of making roster: High

RB Brandon Bolden
2021 salary cap hit: $1.99 million
Bolden’s opt-out wasn’t especially detrimental; the Patriots had a strong ground game and were excellent on special teams in 2020. But with James White and Rex Burkhead both headed for free agency, having another versatile backfield body won’t hurt. Bolden also is a popular locker room figure and a favorite of head coach Bill Belichick. Likelihood of making roster: Moderately high

TE Matt LaCosse
2021 salary cap hit: $1.45 million
LaCosse likely would have been New England’s starting tight end had he not opted out, though it’s hard to say he would’ve made much of a difference after he managed just 13 catches in 11 games the previous year. The Patriots desperately need reinforcements at this spot after their tight ends ranked dead last in the NFL receptions in back-to-back seasons. LaCosse should have a leg up on fellow veteran Ryan Izzo, but there’s a chance neither is on the team come Week 1. Likelihood of making roster: Moderate

FB Danny Vitale
2021 salary cap hit: $1.29 million
Vitale’s return will set up an interesting roster battle at fullback, as the former Green Bay Packer is more athletic and versatile than Jakob Johnson but also smaller and less of a prototypical lead blocker. Last summer, we wondered whether offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would attempt to utilize Vitale the way Kyle Shanahan uses Kyle Juszczyk. He and Johnson likely will be fighting for one roster spot. Likelihood of making roster: Moderate

WR Marqise Lee
2021 salary cap hit: $987,500
It’s been three years since Lee last played a full season. He missed the entire 2018 campaign with torn knee ligaments, played just six games in 2019 and then opted out last summer. The 29-year-old was a productive pass-catcher earlier in his career (119 receptions for 1,553 yards and six touchdowns between 2016 and 2017) but now is a total wild card. He’ll need a strong camp to earn a spot in what should be an improved Patriots receiving corps. Likelihood of making roster: Moderately low

G Najee Toran
2021 salary cap hit: $780,000
Toran was a roster long shot last offseason. That remains the case. The 25-year-old has yet to make his regular-season NFL debut. Likelihood of making roster: Low

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

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