When the New England Patriots hit the field this upcoming season, their team will look very different. Not just because Tom Brady is gone, or that Cam Newton is now sporting a Patriots jersey. But because of COVID-19.
The pandemic has caused dozens of players in the NFL to opt-out of the 2020 season. Their health is much more important than anything football has to offer. For the New England Patriots, they have several players that have chosen to sideline themselves this fall. Those players are linebacker Dont'a Hightower, right tackle Marcus Cannon, guard Najee Toran, running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Dan Vitale and safety Patrick Chung.
While it will be tough for New England to overcome the loss of several of those players, what is being overlooked is how new opportunities have surfaced for some of the players on the team who are inexperienced and were expected to be cut or have limited workloads because of their lack of experience in the NFL. More specifically, the the rookies on the roster.
When Dan Vitale opted out on Monday, the team went out and re-signed wide receiver Will Hastings, who had been one of 10 players cut by the team over the weekend. Hastings, who has rapport with quarterback Jarrett Stidham from their time together at Auburn, was seemingly looking for another team to play for once he was cut, by opt-outs have him sporting red, white and blue once and give him a chance to make the 53-man roster.
With Vitale sidelined, second-year fullback Jakob Johnson could be the primary FB for New England. However, tight end Dalton Keene, one of New England's third-round picks this year, could play larger role as a blocker out of the backfield. Keene was expected to rotate at that position to some extent before Vitale opted out, but now that role should be expanded for him.
New England already has a loaded backfield that consists of Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris. So J.J. Taylor, an undrafted rookie out of Arizona that was signed by the Patriots, was a player that was easily seen as a cut candidate at the end of August. However, now that running back Brandon Bolden -- a player that was the team's primary kick returner and a key special teams component -- decided to opt-out, Taylor, who has experience as a kick returner, could now carve himself a role on the regular-season roster if he impresses enough this summer.
Hightower opting out means late-round pick Cassh Maluia and/or undrafted linebacker De’Jon “Skuta” Harris may now have a roster spot. And second-round pick Josh Uche could have an expanded workload in order to make up for Hightower’s absence.
Kyle Dugger was New England's first selection of the 2020 Draft. But because he was a Div. 2 prospect, the expectation (at least by me) was that he would have a limited workload this upcoming season so he could acclimate to the speed of the NFL. But now that Chung has opted out, Dugger, as well Adrian Phillips, who the team signed this offseason, will have larger workloads than previously projected.
Even though the pandemic has brought about difficulties for many people in the country, which includes those in the NFL, it has also brought about new opportunities for players that previously would have never had a chance to play meaningful NFL snaps. That's evident for the Patriots, who may now rely more on some of their rookies as they begin the post-Tom Brady era in Foxboro.
There will certainly be growing pains because of inexperienced players taking on sizable workloads. But unfortunately there's no other choice.
So as the saying goes in New England - next man up.