That's precisely why I think people are talking about the 2021 Patriots in a manner that doesn't really correspond to where they stand as a team. You hear "rebuild" and how they already made the playoffs and are ahead of schedule, but they had the 10th oldest roster in football last year and will have to replace a ton of veterans on defense with little cap space to spare for 2022. They are in this weird space where the rookie QB is in place but their roster in the short term will likely be unproven, but not necessarily young. You're right, they don't have many guys under contract on rookie deals that are either already established or just about to break out. Maybe Dugger and Barmore? I would've put Onwenu in this category but for some reason he doesn't play anymore.Hightower's cap hit was north of $12 MM this year, so I'm sure you're right you can replace his production for less. The problem is he's not under contract at all, and neither is Bentley, and there's not much cap space to speak of to fill that hole, as well as several others.
I'm not sure whether people realize this or not, but we basically haven't begun to pay for last offseason's spending spree.
2021 cap hits: Jonnu: 5.6 MM, Henry 6.8 MM, Agholor 6.9 MM, Godchaux 4 MM, Judon 6.3 MM
2022: Jonnu: 13.75 MM, Henry 15 MM, Agholor 15 MM, Godchaux 10.2 MM, Judon 16.5 MM
Those 5 guys are going to cost ~$40 MM more on the 2022 cap than they did in 2021.
And the other issue is they don't really have young guys waiting in the wings, like, anywhere on the roster. I mean, on paper you can say, well, they drafted Cameron McGrone last year in the 5th, he can take Hightower's snaps, but that's a lot to put on a dude who played zero snaps this year.