Bill Belichick always has an answer for everything. But not even the architect of the greatest dynasty in professional sports could figure out a way to stop the COVID-19 pandemic from affecting his team. With several prominent players opting-out of the season, the New England Patriots coach exposed the reality of dealing with COVID-19 during an offseason unlike any other in the history of sports.
The Patriots got hit hard by COVID-19 opt-outs
Coming off a disappointing loss to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs, Bill Belichick entered the offseason with issues to resolve. Obviously Tom Brady’s departure dominated headlines early on. New England also watched Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Danny Shelton sign elsewhere.
However, nothing could have prepared the Patriots for their greatest personnel losses.
New England lost a league-high eight players to COVID-19 opt-outs. Dont’a Hightower headlined the group. His loss stings the most given his presence as a team captain and his knack for making clutch plays in the biggest moments.
Longtime starting safety Pat Chung also elected to not play this year. While top draft pick Kyle Dugger represents the future at the position, the Patriots likely envisioned him as a long-term replacement rather than a first-year starter.
The offense also lost key starters to COVID-19 opt-outs. Right tackle Marcus Cannon will not play this season. Neither will tight end Matt LaCosse. Running back and core special-teamer Brandon Bolden will also sit out the year.
Bill Belichick unveils the effect of COVID-19 on offseason program
For Bill Belichick, nothing stops business from getting conducted. But due to the pandemic, the Patriots’ preparation process has looked vastly different this offseason. On Monday, the 68-year-old exposed the reality of dealing with COVID-19 in a discussion with former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson on his new ESPN radio show.
“We didn’t have as many team meetings; we had a lot of positional and individual meetings, as I think those are more effective ways to communicate,” Belichick explained. “I’d say the individual instruction and communication was extensive—more than what we normally would have. The gap is obviously on the field and playing fundamentals and team execution.”
Belichick also discussed how the pandemic’s effect on the interactions between players, coaches, and other staff members who typically spend ample time together during the offseason.
“Being able to be around somebody on a daily basis in the locker room or in the dining room or on the field and really get to know the personality and all that is a little different than what it is on the Webex calls,” Belichick said. “We did things there to try to get to know each other but it’s certainly been enhanced in the last three weeks here since people have all come to Foxborough.”
Patriots have some interesting position battles to watch
With the Patriots kicking off training camp, Bill Belichick has a few key position battles to monitor. Obviously priority No. 1 will be finding a starting quarterback.
Cam Newton should have the leg up from a talent and resume standpoint. The former league MVP joined the Patriots after spending months on the free-agent market. He still has to prove he has fully recovered from foot and shoulder injuries that derailed his once-promising career in Carolina.
Second-year pro Jarrett Stidham could give the former No. 1 pick a run for his money. Though Stidham slipped to the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft, he originally signed with Baylor as a five-star recruit. He looked like a future star for the Bears before transferring to Auburn. Stidham entered his senior season as a first-round prospect before a lackluster campaign caused his draft stock to slide.
However, he earned the No. 2 job last season and has garnered plenty of offseason hype. Ultimately, if he plays better than Newton in practice, it will be difficult for Belichick to pass over playing the potential star.
Elsewhere, the Patriots also need to find a starting right tackle, a starting strong safety, and at least three linebackers. The team will need its recent draft picks to step up to alleviate the losses of so many key veterans.
Now we will have to see whether the Patriots can reshape a roster that got hit hard by free-agent defections before COVID-19 claimed eight more members. But if there’s any coach who can navigate through murky waters, it’s Bill Belichick.