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FOXBOROUGH, MA - OCTOBER 14: Dont'a Hightower #54 of the New England Patriots celebrates after he intercepted a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots are expected to get some of their key opt-outs from the 2020 season back for 2021, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Rapoport tweeted that linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and right tackle Marcus Cannon “are planning to be back for 2021,” and that “Physically, all are in a good place.”

In case you’re curious, the returns of Hightower, Chung, and Cannon would not affect the Patriots’ projected salary cap space of $63.5 million. Pats cap expert Miguel Benzan was quick to clarify that.

Compared to the 2020 Patriots roster, the return of the opt-outs could represent a trio of impactful free-agent additions (emphasis on “free”). Losing Hightower gutted the Patriots’ linebacker depth in 2020, as third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley often struggled after being suddenly thrust into the lead role. Getting Hightower back, even as a lesser version of himself, goes a long way toward solidifying that position. Chung brings back the versatility that the Patriots missed without him at safety.

Cannon, meanwhile, has a chance to slot right back in at right tackle and restore stability to that spot. It would also free up Michael Onwenu to take over at left guard, should Joe Thuney depart in free agency.

The big question with all three of them is whether they’ll be the same players they were in 2019 after taking a year off. Also, technically the Patriots should aim to improve upon what they had in 2019 as well. One more thing: Cannon is due for $7 million cash in 2021, which the Patriots could save both in real dollars and cap dollars by cutting him.

But even if just one of them returns and is the same kind of difference-maker they were before, then the Patriots’ 2021 roster won’t feel so barren – especially at linebacker.

MORE: Patriots’ Key Internal Free Agents

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.