After being hit the hardest of any team in the NFL by COVID-19 opt-outs in 2020, the New England Patriots appear set to get back at least some of the pieces it was missing this season.
The Patriots had an NFL-high 8 players opt-out of the 2020 season due to concerns about COVID-19. At least 3 and possibly 4 of the players who opted out were sorely missed as the Patriots missed the postseason in 2020 for the first time since 2008.
Thankfully, it appears at least some of the players who opted out are planning to return in 2021.
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Much has been said about the Patriots’ void at wide receiver.
While he’s not a star, we didn’t hear many references to Marqise Lee, a player the Patriots signed to a one-year prove-it deal during the offseason. No one expected Lee to turn into Marvin Harrison in 2020, but can anyone definitively say he wouldn’t have been arguably the team’s No. 1 receiver had he not opted out?
We’ll never know the answer to that question, but perhaps we’ll see some indication one way or the other in 2021 as it appears he’s planning to return. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Lee said, “I got to Boston on Sunday, did the physical and everything was perfect. As far as this year goes, I’m eager to get back.”
Lee said he had no regrets after opting out as he had a baby daughter on the way, but is said to be “leaning toward” returning in 2021.
Running back and special teams ace Brandon Bolden has already said he plans to return in 2021.
The Patriots have a wealth of running backs, but there are some injury and aging situations the team has to navigate. Rex Burkhead was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Damien Harris had 2 stints on injured reserve–including to end the season–and James White is a free agent who will be 29 in February. Bolden turns 30 in a week, so he’s already past the prime age for his position, however, his specialty skills may help him stick.
One of the more underrated opt-outs was fullback Dan Vitale. While Jakob Johnson filled in admirably, especially as a lead blocker, he doesn’t possess the hands and receiving skills that Vitale would have brought to the table.
Vitale has excellent speed at the fullback and he was an exciting addition to the offense when he was signed during the offseason. According to Reiss, Vitale is also said to be leaning toward returning in 2021.
Without a question, the biggest void created by the COVID-19 opt-outs came from Dont’a Hightower’s absence. The Patriots’ defense desperately missed his presence in the middle as a gap plugger and impediment in pass coverage.
The bad news for Patriots fans is Hightower may choose to retire.
There have been rumors swirling suggesting he would not return, but Hightower has not publicly stated his intentions. However, many–including Reiss–acknowledge his return is far from a given.
While the other names on the Patriots’ opt-out list carry some significance, most will be waiting to hear what Hightower plans to do in 2021.