It is almost impossible to quantify how much the New England Patriots missed some or all of the eight players who opted out of the 2020 NFL season due to concerns about COVID-19.
While their absences undoubtedly took a huge chunk out of the team’s performance last season, recent reports indicate the most significant players who were a part of the opt-out group are coming back in 2021, per NFL.com’s Ian Rapaport.
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The Biggest Return
The Patriots’ run defense was putrid in 2020. They ranked No. 26 in the NFL in this category. There are multiple reasons for the falloff in this area. The defensive tackle position–aside from Adam Butler’s play–was beneath the level the team has enjoyed in its best years.
The exit of Danny Shelton, who landed with the Detroit Lions, was perhaps a bigger deal than New England originally expected. He was supposed to be replaced by free-agent acquisition Beau Allen, but injuries kept him off the field the entire season.
As big of a void as Allen’s injuries and Shelton’s departure created, it could be argued the biggest problem with the run defense was the inexperienced and somewhat shallow linebacker corps.
Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts bolted in free agency. The Patriots drafted Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche to take their spots, but youth and injuries dulled their impact. Most of all, team leader and interior thumper Dont’a Hightower opted out, and it left a glaring hole in the team’s overall defense, especially the run game.
Hightower isn’t just a big, athletic linebacker. He has a high football IQ and expert grasp of the Patriots’ defensive scheme, and he’s a leader of men who could potentially head into the coaching ranks when he’s done playing.
The Patriots found out firsthand that he is one of the most valuable players on their roster if they didn’t already know. With Hightower scheduled to return, New England’s defense will automatically improve as long as he remains healthy.
The Underrated Additions/Returns
The Patriots badly needed contributors at wide receiver in 2020, and almost no one talks about the absence of Marqise Lee. The Patriots signed Lee to a one-year deal before the season, but he opted-out.
Lee isn’t Davante Adams, but he is an experienced pass-catcher who had 63 receptions for 851 yards and three TDs in 2018. He could be a strong contributor as a third or fourth receiver on the kind of effective unit New England is hoping to establish.
Also, there is super fullback Dan Vitale. Jakob Johnson was strong in the fullback role in 2020, but he’s primarily a blocker. The thing that made Vitale an attractive option for the Patriots when they signed him is his speed and ability to make plays in the passing game.
If he could add that element to the Patriots’ passing game while also carrying the duties as a lead-blocking fullback when needed, he could be a valuable contributor as well.
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