Patriots Rumors: Patrick Chung, Dont'a Hightower, More Expected Back in 2021

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2021

New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower warms up during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Steven Senne/Associated Press

Several New England Patriots players who opted out of the 2020 NFL season are reportedly expected to return in 2021, including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon.

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported Friday that the Pats' returning players are in a "good place" physically.

New England led all teams with eight opt-outs, which were available leaguewide because of the coronavirus pandemic. Running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale, wide receiver Marqise Lee, tight end Matt LaCosse and guard Najee Toran were the others.

"I respect all of them," head coach Bill Belichick said in July about the opt-outs. "I respect all the players on our team. We all have to make decisions. And I talked to those guys, and they explained their situations. They had to make the decision that was best for them, and I totally respect and support it 100 percent."

Those absences combined with the departure of longtime quarterback Tom Brady, who proceeded to win his seventh Super Bowl title with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were the key factors in the Patriots' first losing season since 2000 as they posted a 7-9 record.

The Pats ranked 27th in total offense by yards and 15th in yards allowed in 2020 after ranking 15th and first, respectively, in 2019.

At minimum, the returns of Hightower and Chung will bring some much-needed veteran stability to the defense for 2021.

The biggest question remains how Belichick, who also serves as the club's de facto general manager, will replace Brady over the long haul, though.

Former NFL MVP Cam Newton failed to impress after signing a one-year contract for 2020, and journeyman backup Brian Hoyer is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. Jarrett Stidham also hasn't looked like the long-term answer since getting selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft.

New England could explore the trade or free-agent markets, or it may try to move up from the No. 15 pick in the first round of the draft to target one of this year's top prospects coming out of college.

The Patriots won't return to their previously typical status of a championship contender until that crucial void is filled, even with the players who opted out set to return.