Patriots running back Damien Harris has a chance to step into an important role. Harris, a 2019 third-round pick, could take advantage of Sony Michel starting camp on the PUP list. Carlos Osorio/Associated Press


Close one door, another opens. That’s the glass-is-half-full perspective with the Patriots having eight players opt out, including six in the group who fall into the category of starter or expected contributor.

There’s no question losing the eight Patriots who have opted out will have an impact on the offense, defense and special teams. Included in the mix are a linebacker, safety, running back, fullback, tight end, wide receiver and a pair of offensive linemen.

That happens when you lose Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden, Matt LaCosse, Dan Vitale, Marqise Lee and Najee Toran,

There could even be more with the opt-out deadline at 4 p.m. Thursday. Either way, it creates an opportunity for others to seize the moment, and help fill the void.

While the Patriots may dip into free agency given they now have a bit of cap room, everyone is in the same boat. Whether it’s a new player or rookie, it’s going to be paramount to learn the playbook and get comfortable with assignments in short order.


As center David Andrews acknowledged during a video conference Sunday, the chances are there for several players to step into a bigger role. Andrews used his own experience to emphasize the point, recalling that as an undrafted rookie, he wasn’t expected to be a starter in 2015, but took advantage of an opening when starter Bryan Stork was hurt.

“A lot of guys now are going to have a lot of great opportunities. There’s a lot of younger players that are going to have big opportunities,” said Andrews. “They just have to take it, and run with it.”

Here’s a look at some of the players who could benefit from the jobs created by the opt-outs.

TIGHT END: Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene

While it’s certainly possible for the Patriots to add a veteran tight end room in wake of LaCosse opting out, Asiasi and Keene could help the cause. The offense could definitely use a boost from the position, and it sure looks like it’s going to be a trial by fire for the rookie duo. Asiasi, in particular, has the skill set and ability to step into a top role. He just has to accelerate the learning curve. Whether a veteran is brought in or not, the opportunity is there for Asiasi to jump in and establish himself as a difference-maker. Ryan Izzo, the team’s 2018 seventh-round pick, is the only tight end with NFL experience. He’s primarily a blocking tight end, so Asiasi could step in immediately given his ability to block and catch passes. As for Keene, with his versatility, he could be an asset any number of ways. With fullback Vitale opting out, he can serve in that role, line up as an H-back, or a second tight end, and help diversify the offense. If the duo can perform beyond their experience, they’ll make up for several losses.

RUNNING BACK: Damien Harris


Sony Michel is starting camp on the active PUP (physically unable to perform) list. Bolden, a core special-teamer and depth piece at running back, opted out. So there’s certainly room for Harris, a 2019 third-round pick. Establishing a running game is going to be critical to the Patriots going forward, especially with a new quarterback. That means Harris, who essentially had a redshirt year as a rookie, can take the baton and literally run with it. The opportunity is certainly there for him to blossom during Michel’s absence, and for however long he’s out. Rex Burkhead is the only other three-down back on the roster. The former Alabama product, who played for Nick Saban, looked good attacking the hole in camp last year. He needs to crank it up in 2020, and assure the Patriots will have a viable attack without Michel.

SAFETY: Kyle Dugger

The Patriots have a few safety options to plug the vacancy created by Chung opting out. Adrian Phillips, signed in free agency, fits the bill. Terrance Brooks, who filled in for Chung at times last season, might also be in the mix. Dugger? With Chung, Phillips and Brooks all having the ability to play closer to the box, it was hard envisioning how Dugger, the team’s 2020 second-round pick, might get on the field. Without Chung, and also Duron Harmon, who was traded in the offseason, there’s more of an opening for him to get on the field. Dugger, a Division II prospect from Lenoir-Rhyne, has the versatility to play closer to the line, or deep like Devin McCourty and Harmon. The defense is complex; Dugger needs to be a quick study. His athleticism makes him a viable option to assume one of the safety roles. With his ability to return punts, Dugger could see playing time a lot more than expected.

O-LINE: Yodny Cajuste

He’s a bit of a mystery man. He was taken in the 2019 draft, a third-round pick out of West Virginia, but no one saw the tackle play in Foxborough thanks to offseason surgery on his quad. He didn’t participate in camp, and was put on injured reserve. So what’s known? Former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia liked him and had positive things to say about the rookie last year. Given that, Cajuste was expected to be in the running for the swing tackle job behind Isaiah Wynn and Cannon. With Cannon opting out – there’s a starting job waiting for him if he wants to grab it. Korey Cunningham and rookie Justin Herron are also in the mix, but if Cajuste shows whatever ability inspired the Patriots to take him early in the draft, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to assume Cannon’s role on the right side. Obviously, he’s raw when it comes to NFL experience, but his upside exceeds the other candidates. While his injury history is a concern, he has the size (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), strength and ability to move into Cannon’s spot. It’s up to him to take advantage.

LINEBACKER: Brandon Copeland

He was a starter with the Jets in recent years, but appeared to be headed for a back-up role with the Patriots. With Hightower opting out, and Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins playing elsewhere, Copeland has a chance to come to the rescue. He’s 6-foot-3, 263 pounds, and has the versatility, like Hightower, to play inside, outside, or middle linebacker. While the Patriots did draft a pair of young studs, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, the complexity of the defense may have Belichick turn toward a veteran initially as Uche and Jennings develop. Even though the two rookies also have some position versatility, and will be utilized in some situations, Copeland is likely to have a bigger role. In his last two seasons, Copeland totaled 77 tackles (13 for loss), 17 quarterback hits, and 6.5 sacks in 28 games (13 starts). Most of Copeland’s snaps have come as an outside linebacker, but with his ability to move around, he’s bound to help plug the holes. Someone has to play shotgun alongside Ja’Whaun Bentley, who is now the main man in the middle of the defense. While rookies Caash Maluia and De’Jon “Scoota” Harris also figure into the equation as inside linebackers, Copeland should bear the brunt of the snaps given his experience.

RECEIVER: Jeff Thomas

Marqise Lee, coming off two major injuries, wasn’t exactly a lock to make the team. But the element of having speed at receiver can’t be overlooked. Damiere Byrd might benefit most by not having to duke it out with Lee for that role, but let’s not overlook Thomas. He’s a real sleeper who could make some noise with Lee out of the equation. Yes, he comes with baggage, having been kicked off the Miami Hurricanes once, but his raw ability can’t be overlooked. Even at 5-foot-8, he has the possibility of making it in the NFL thanks to his blazing speed (4.45 time in the 40-yard dash) and natural talent. He could be utilized in any number of ways, be it outside, in the slot, or on end-arounds. Add his special teams ability as a returner, and the former four-star recruit is an intriguing prospect. With spots available, he’s one player who could surprise and seize the opportunity. He reportedly loves to play the game, but isn’t a fan of all the work that goes along with it. If he’s committed and dedicated, it will be hard to send him packing.

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