FOXBORO — Odds are the Patriots aren't going to have to worry about taking the field without Patrick Chung any time soon.
Even though he's facing an arraignment in New Hampshire next week after being indicted for felony cocaine possession on Aug. 8, there are multiple factors that will go into Chung's ability to be on the field come Week 1.
The first is the timing of the legal proceeding. According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Belknap County court documents say that if Chung's case goes to trial it might not occur until after the 2019 NFL season in March.
Then there's the reality that the NFL seems to be relying more on local law enforcement to come to a decision in cases pertaining to league individuals before a decision is made on punishment.
The NFL investigated Tyreek Hill's recent case but leaned on the point of view of local authorities in explaining why Hill wasn't suspended, saying, "Local law enforcement authorities have publicly advised that the available evidence does not permit them to determine who caused the child's injuries . . . If further information becomes available through law enforcement, the pending court proceeding, or other sources, we will promptly consider it and take all appropriate steps at that time."
In the case of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, commissioner Roger Goodell was very open in explaining that the league would wait for the legal proceedings to play out before determining if any punishment would be handed down.
It would make sense, then, for the league to wait until Chung's legal proceedings play out before imposing any kind of punishment.
According to the NFL's policy on substance abuse violations, a player convicted of a violating the law is "subject to appropriate discipline as determined by the Commissioner . . . Discipline for a first offense will be a suspension without pay for up to four regular and/or postseason games."
If Chung is not found to have violated any laws, and if he is a first-time offender in the league's eyes, he would avoid suspension altogether but be entered into the league's substance abuse program. Players who have committed multiple violations of the league's substance-abuse policy — players who are in the program because of a previous offense — would be eligible to be suspended. League policy is to keep first offenses confidential.
Given the timing of Chung's legal proceedings, and given the league's recent deference to local law enforcement, if he is going to face suspension, it appears as though it wouldn't come down until before the 2020 season at the earliest.
That means the Patriots shouldn't have to plan for what their defense would look like without Chung for a while. But the 32-year-old is a critical piece to the overall operation and would be one of the more difficult players to replace on that side of the ball because of his unique skill set as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Under contract through 2021, Chung really has no logical replacement currently on the roster. Fellow safety Terrence Brooks has seen some snaps as an in-the-box safety this summer, and Obi Melifonwu — thanks to his size and athleticism — would be an interesting fit as a defensive back deployed closer to the line of scrimmage. When Chung has missed time in the past, the Patriots have used Devin McCourty closer to the line of scrimmage and played free safety Duron Harmon more frequently in McCourty's place.
Those types of considerations, as of right now, seem to be a long way off. It looks like it's going to be a while between now and whenever the Patriots would even have to think about taking the field without Chung because of any punishment levied by the league.
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