When the Patriots take the field in 2020 they'll be a little younger, which for them is a relatively new phenomenon for them.
The oldest team in football last year, the Patriots were looking like one of the oldest teams in the NFL once again to start 2020 — even after Tom Brady's departure. That may still be the case, yet with the opt-outs of players like Brandon Bolden, Marcus Cannon, Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower, the team lost a quartet of key contributors, each of whom was at least 30 years old.
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The result? Well, to start, question marks.
There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower. There is no obvious answer at right tackle after Cannon. The Patriots are better equipped to handle Chung's absence with their depth at safety, but his experience in the system working alongside safety Devin McCourty is unique and makes his departure a more difficult one to absorb.
Odds are, though, that as the Patriots look into filling each spot — including the core special teams role held by Bolden — there will be younger players who receive more opportunities than they otherwise might've had it not been for COVID. For a team that has been so heavy on veterans in recent years, a team with depth charts stacked with 30-somethings, a youth movement of sorts will offer up something Patriots fans haven't been all that used to: a glimpse into the future.
Of course, Bill Belichick has received key contributions in recent years from young players like Sony Michel, J.C. Jackson and Chase Winovich. But consider this: The Patriots opened last season with an average age of 27.2 years old (oldest in the league); in 2018, they had an average age of 26.8 (30th in the NFL); in 2017 they checked in at 26.5 (26th).
Belichick and his front-office staff seem to have willingly gone with an older roster in recent years, perhaps in an effort to capitalize on their championship window as Brady neared the end of his career. But that approach — unafraid to trade picks or execute pick-swap deals for proven veterans — meant a smaller investment in rookie contracts than most other clubs.
In 2018, according to OverTheCap.com, only one team had fewer cap dollars committed to players on rookie contracts than the Patriots. That year, only two teams had a lower percentage of their active roster devoted to players on rookie deals (33 players). It worked out. They won a Super Bowl.
Last season, it was more of the same in terms of their rookie-contract investment. No team in the league had fewer players on rookie contracts (24) and no team committed fewer dollars to rookie deals.
Going into this year's draft, no team had fewer players on rookie contracts (28), and no roster had a smaller percentage of players on rookie contracts making up their roster (52.8 percent). That was even with veteran free agents like Brady, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins not counting against their books. The next closest team in terms of the percentage of rostered players on rookie deals was the Saints (60.4 percent).
The Patriots haven't been oblivious to that trend. In an effort to fortify their younger base, they drafted in bulk in recent years, taking 19 players between 2018 and 2019. But only three of those to this point have at least five starts in a season to their names: Michel, Isaiah Wynn and N'Keal Harry. Jackson, who went undrafted in 2018, is the only other first- or second-year player with at least five starts in a season.
In the spring, Belichick and Nick Caserio added 10 more draft picks to the mix as they transition to becoming a younger roster. As has been the case for the last few seasons, though, it looked like it'd be difficult for any of them — maybe outside of the tight ends and the kicker — to quickly turn themselves into regulars.
Then this week happened.
Hightower's opt-out will almost certainly require the Patriots to lean on third-year linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley to serve as a communicator in the middle of the defense. But Hightower's departure also exacerbates whatever difficulty the Patriots were already scheduled to confront with Van Noy, Collins and Elandon Roberts leaving via free agency earlier in the offseason. Not only can the Patriots not count on one player to replace Hightower because of his varied skill set, but they were also on the hook to try to replace three more veteran linebackers who knew the Patriots defense inside and out.
Even with no preseason, no rookie minicamp, no OTAs, first-year players like second-round pick Josh Uche and third-round choice Anfernee Jennings could be thrust into action when about a week ago it might've made sense to try to give one or both a "red-shirt year" to develop.
Those who occupy the Patriots front seven don't have that luxury this year. Uche's dynamic athleticism may flash earlier than anticipated if he's called upon to help make up for the Hightower blitzes the team likes to deploy. Jennings' power at the end of the line of scrimmage might now come under the microscope more quickly with both Hightower and Van Noy gone.
An intensified spotlight is something second-round pick Kyle Dugger out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne may also have to deal with. He looked like an obvious candidate to sit for a season behind Chung, learn from the veteran, and maybe use his eye-popping athletic skills to contribute on special teams as he picked up Belichick's defense. Now — though the Patriots have a pair of veterans with Chung-like tools in newly-acquired free agent Adrian Phillips and Terrence Brooks — Dugger may be an injury away from seeing defensive snaps of consequence.
On the offensive line, Yodny Cajuste is going to be participating in his first set of Patriots practices this summer. Recovering from a quad injury last year, he didn't partake in any on-the-field workouts with his new team. That makes coming into this season with a legitimate role a less-than-ideal scenario. But that may be the reality for the 2019 third-rounder with Cannon gone and no clear-cut replacement waiting in the wings.
Belichick's hand won't be forced from a personnel perspective. When he says he's going to "do what's best for the football team," he means it.
Oftentimes, that means the known commodity of veteran help gets the nod over younger athletes with higher ceilings. But tied up in all that will be different for the Patriots in 2020 is the possibility that "what's best for the football team" in some spots, particularly after a wave of opt-outs, is playing those who are youngest.