Sunday 7: Key Patriots opt-outs aren’t locks to be on 2021 roster

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1. It’s been speculated for quite some time that the Patriots players who opted out of the 2020 season plan on returning in 2021. But, just because they plan on playing doesn’t necessarily make them locks to be on the roster, notably Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon. Hightower is likely the safest given how vital he is to the middle of the defense, but all three are in their early 30s and come with high cap hits. Relating to Chung, Adrian Phillips played a role virtually identical to Chung’s in 2020 and will be 29 years old compared to Chung turning 34 in August. Chung also costs roughly $1 million more in 2021 and we didn’t even mention Kyle Dugger, who plays a similar role and is going into his second NFL season. With that being said, Chung has a over $6 million dead cap hit, so it may not make much financial sense to cut him. Cannon’s situation is much different. The Patriots would save roughly $7 million by cutting him and with the emergence of rookie Michael Onwenu last season, the team could feel it no longer needs Cannon, who will turn 33 years old in May. Bill Belichick and Co. are all about getting the most value out of their players and we’ve seen many times in the past where the organization moves on from veteran players who aren’t giving them maximum value according to them. Just because these three players have meant so much to the team in the past and plan on playing in 2021 doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee they are on the roster come the start of the season.

2. Speaking to Patriots.com’s Megan O’Brien, Dave Ziegler gave some insight into how things will look this offseason when it comes to scouting players for the draft. Teams will be able to attend pro days around the country, but it will be limited to three people from each organization and no face-to-face meetings will take place. All interviews with players will come via Zoom. “You can still get a good feel for people and the players over Zoom calls,” he said. “It might not be to the level of detail you always feel when you’re face-to-face, but we’ll maximize them. We feel confident that we’ll have the information we feel comfortable having and we’ll dig like we always dig and we’ll spend the time to make sure we do feel good about the players that we have interest in.”

3. The more time that goes by, the more important it feels like it is for the Patriots to retain center David Andrews. Joe Thuney seems unlikely to return given what his value will be on the open market and losing Andrews too could make for a big issue with the offensive line when it comes to leadership and a veteran presence. While it wasn’t an issue last season, the group is just a year removed from losing Dante Scarnecchia and it feels like losing even more pieces this offseason could make for a potential problem in 2021. Of the Patriots’ own free agents, Andrews should be viewed as a top priority.

4. A potential issue with Cam Newton returning to the team and potentially mentoring a rookie is what if it comes time for the rookie to start? How would Newton handle being the backup? How would the locker room handle it? That seemed to be part of the decision-making process this past season and Jarrett Stidham not starting down the stretch, so wouldn’t it be the same thing next season if a rookie were to be in the picture? Also, Newton said all the right things last year, would that change if he were no longer the starter?

5. With there not being many great options when it comes to quarterbacks, one thought for the Patriots is just going all-in at other positions and figuring out the QB situation later. The thought there could be to add a lot of pieces so that New England becomes a place quarterbacks want to come to in 2022. Is that the worst option? No, but it doesn’t feel like the best and what would things look like in 2021?

6. One interesting question that came up on The Off Day podcast this week: Is the Patriots best player in 2021 on the roster right now? With the fourth-most cap space in the league and the No. 15 overall pick, if the answer is on the roster right now, that’s probably not a good thing for the team next season. Those options include Onwenu, Damien Harris, Kyle Dugger and Chase Winovich, which again is not a good thing for New England.

7. With the calendar flipping to March Monday, it’s worth looking at the free agency dates. The legal tampering period begins March 15 and the new league year begins March 17 at 4 p.m. That period will likely feature the biggest free agents agreeing to deals and then the second and third waves coming shortly thereafter. Based on the Patriots in the past, expect them to be most active in the second and third waves, as usually the first wave is mostly teams overpaying for the biggest names.