New England Patriots Are Still AFC East Favorites Despite Opt-Outs

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 29, 2020

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick works the field during practice before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
Gary Landers/Associated Press

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is living rent-free in the minds of his competition, which provides his team with an edge despite multiple departures that greatly affect the roster's makeup.

Six players—linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and reserve offensive lineman Najee Toran—have decided to opt out of the 2020 season before the start of training camp because of concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss.

Three key performers, two contributors and a potential reserve are not with the organization, which could prove to be a major hindrance.

Yet Belichick and Co. will continue to garner the benefit of the doubt after building arguably the greatest dynasty in professional football history, and deservedly so. Quarterback Tom Brady may be gone after signing a free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Patriots roster still features enough talent and capability to be considered the AFC East favorites.

The Buffalo Bills will have something to say about this, but the Patriots aren't completely depleted despite multiple offseason losses and they own a mental edge over everyone else, as ESPN's Adam Schefter noted:

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Previously, New England responded with the offseason's best signing in an attempt to replace Brady. Cam Newton agreed on a one-year, $1.75 million contract after months of waiting for an opportunity and landed in the ideal spot to regain his previous greatness.

After two underwhelming seasons and major surgeries to repair injuries to his throwing shoulder and a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, the 2015 NFL MVP is in better shape than ever because of his new approach to nutrition.

"I've seen such a remarkable change in the way my body responds to the food that I eat," the 31-year-old said of his new plant-based diet, per Reiss.

Newton can never truly replace Brady, of course. However, the incoming signal-caller doesn't need to do so because he'll be utilized differently. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can expand the playbook by implementing more run-pass options, pocket movement, rollouts and possibly downfield targets to complement the short passing game where Brady thrived. The Patriots don't want to overutilize Newton's outstanding combination of size (6'5", 245 pounds) and athleticism, but the coaching staff understands he brings a different and exciting dynamic the offense lacked the last 20 years.

Belichick made a lacrosse reference in recently describing Newton's ability (via NBC Sports Boston's Darren Hartwell):

"Cam Newton looks like Myles Jones to me. He's fast. He's big. He'd be a tough guy to match up against. He could run by them.

"He could run through those stick checks, and he'd have a toughwith the stick worka tough overhand shot, so I think those tall, long guys really have a big advantage of being able to change the angle of their shots and still be able to run through some guys."

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

The possibility that Jarrett Stidham starts still exists, but a healthy Newton brings far more to the table than an unproven fourth-round draft pick from 2019.

Elsewhere, New England has done a nice job building one of the game's deepest rosters, which should expedite this season's transition at multiple positions.

Up front, the Patriots will have some shuffling to do after Cannon's decision. The 32-year-old right tackle—who had non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011—started 50 games over the last four seasons. He's been a reliable veteran presence, but the team can now test last year's final third-round pick, Yodny Cajuste.

Cajuste looked like a first-round talent at West Virginia. In four seasons with the Mountaineers, the 6'5", 312-pound blocker with 34-inch arms and a basketball background allowed only four sacks in 1,125 pass-blocking snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

The rookie struggled with a quad injury last season and didn't play, but his potential to take over at right tackle remains present.

"One of the things he was fairly proficient in was pass protection, which there is a lateral change-of-direction element," director of player personnel Nick Caserio told reporters when asked how Cajuste's basketball background could help his play.

The second-year lineman will compete with 2018 seventh-round pick Korey Cunningham to start, with the other likely to serve as the swing tackle, though sixth-round rookie Justin Herron could surprise.

Dante Scarnecchia's retirement is a bigger concern than having either Cajuste or Cunningham take over for Cannon. Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo will replace the coaching legend. Two first-year position coaches after nearly two decades of consistently excellent direction is a massive downgrade no matter how anyone looks at the move.

Defensively, Hightower's and Chung's departures will create different approaches, but the Patriots have depth at both positions and have consistently been one of the best at adapting their unit to better fit and attack modern offenses with their usage of sub-packages and multiple-safety looks, as examples.

The front office invested heavily in the linebacker position during the draft after Jamie Collins Sr., Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts signed with other teams in free agency. New England drafted Michigan's Josh Uche, Alabama's Anfernee Jennings and Wyoming's Cassh Maluia to fill the void left by the three veterans.

Clearly, it's not ideal to lose a player of Hightower's caliber. The two-time Pro Bowl defender finished second on the team in total tackles (71) and tackles for loss (eight) as well as fourth in sacks (5.5). He's a physical downhill linebacker who sets the tone for the entire squad. He's not entirely replaceable.

Uche is an interesting option to play alongside Ja'Whaun Bentley. This year's 60th overall pick was one of college football's premier edge-rushers. According to Pro Football Focus, Uche led all collegiate edge defenders with a 22.5 percent quarterback pressure rate over the last two seasons. Also, he played off the ball quite a bit. The 226-pound Uche won't be the same downhill thumper as Hightower, but the rookie can bring similar qualities in how he can be utilized.

Chung's versatility may require two or more players to replace his production. The 11-year veteran is one of the game's best multipurpose defensive weapons. He played 334 snaps in the box, 129 snaps over the slot, 113 snaps alongside the defensive line, 48 snaps as an outside cornerback and 30 snaps at free safety last season, per CLNS Media Network's Evan Lazar.

The veteran defensive back's age—he turns 33 next month—prompted the organization to make a significant investment in another defensive back with the physical tools to eventually fill a similar role.

Kyle Dugger came off the board with this year's 37th overall draft pick. The Division II product is a sensational athlete with the size to do everything asked of Chung. At 6'1" and 217 pounds, the 2019 Cliff Harris Award winner as the nation's best small-school defender ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, posted a 42-inch vertical jump and tested among the top 1 percent of NFL defensive backs in SPARQ (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness), per Three Sigma Athlete's Zach Whitman.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Dugger's rare physical traits allow him to play near the line of scrimmage or along the back line. He can also cover tight ends who create mismatches in the passing game. The Patriots probably wanted to ease him into the lineup considering the leap in competition, but his utilization could be vital to New England's defensive success this fall.

If Dugger isn't ready to take on so much responsibility, the Patriots did sign veteran safety Adrian Phillips to a two-year, $6 million free-agent deal this offseason. Phillips received the fifth-highest grade among safeties last year, per Pro Football Focus. The 28-year-old is at his best working in the box or as a sub-package linebacker. His position flexibility should provide help to both positions in case younger options aren't producing to expected levels.

Bolden and Vitale would have contributed in the offensive backfield as well, but the Patriots own one of the league's deepest running back stables. Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris are an excellent quartet of tailbacks, with Jakob Johnson already on the roster to fill in at fullback.

The one positive to these season-long departures is the newfound money the Patriots have toward the 2020 salary cap, which could allow them to dive back into the free-agent pool. New England now has the league's third-most salary-cap space at $25.6 million, per Spotrac. Granted, the Patriots could roll over said windfall next year, but the team is more likely to sign a veteran or two who can help the team win this fall.

Jadeveon Clowney's name will come up, of course, because he's the highest-profile free agent still on the market, but he doesn't necessarily solve any issues after the recent opt-outs.

LaAdrian Waddle and Marshall Newhouse have previous experience playing in the system. Demar Dotson, meanwhile, is arguably the best right tackle still on the market.

At linebacker, Nigel Bradham is the best available option, though he struggled through injuries last season. His medical report will dictate how interested any team is in his services.

Safety has plenty of available options for the Patriots to consider. Tavon Wilson makes the most sense after starting his career in New England and then playing four seasons with the Detroit Lions, the last two of which were under former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. But Eric Reid, Tony Jefferson, Reshad Jones, Clayton Geathers, Antoine Bethea and Jahleel Addae are all experienced options New England can plug into the lineup.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Granted, everything must come together for the Patriots for this to work. Newton must stay healthy. Young, inexperienced players must competently fill vacated positions. Plus, the franchise probably needs to sign a handful of veterans to complete the roster.

Even so, the Patriots are still in one of professional football's weakest divisions.

Yes, the Bills are an ascending team, but their growth potential falls squarely on the shoulders of Josh Allen's development. If the third-year quarterback doesn't drastically improve upon last year's performance, Buffalo is not going to run away with anything. A top-eight rushing offense and top-two scoring defense (one behind the Patriots) only go so far when the quarterback holds back the rest of the roster. Stefon Diggs' addition among Buffalo's wide receivers will help the passing game, but the Bills aren't going to drastically improve a bottom-seven passing attack unless Allen boosts his 32nd-ranked completion percentage and overall decision-making.

The Miami Dolphins are in year two of their rebuild. Finally, the New York Jets appear closer to imploding than blossoming under head coach Adam Gase.

All the while, Belichick is watching and waiting. He's biding his time. He'll cobble together a competitive team one way or the other, and everyone else will think he's fielding the better team even if he isn't. This is how the Patriots find their way to their 12th straight AFC East title.

           

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.