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ben volin | on football

Fallout from pandemic puts a significant dent in Patriots’ plans for 2020

As a cancer survivor, Marcus Cannon is considered high-risk by the NFL in this pandemic environment.
As a cancer survivor, Marcus Cannon is considered high-risk by the NFL in this pandemic environment.Jim Davis

There have been many aspects of living through the COVID-19 pandemic that have been tough to accept: that businesses and schools would shut down, that long-planned vacations would be canceled, that wearing masks would become necessary.

Tuesday, the jarring reality of the pandemic hit the local football team. The Patriots, already looking strange with quarterback Tom Brady no longer here, lost three key starters when linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and right tackle Marcus Cannon all opted out of the 2020 NFL season. The decision is considered irrevocable, so they can’t return until 2021. Their contracts toll a year, so whatever they were going to make in 2020, they will now make in ’21.

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Hightower, Chung, and Cannon have been mainstays in the Patriots lineup for the last decade, and major contributors to three Super Bowl championship teams. They are leaders in the locker room, and Hightower and Chung were going to help the defense carry the Patriots this fall as the offense undergoes a makeover under Cam Newton. Chung just restructured his contract in May, with coach Bill Belichick giving him a well-deserved pay raise.

Now all three are gone for the year, putting a significant dent in the Patriots’ plans. Belichick has to find a new starting right tackle, and last year’s No. 1-ranked defense has now lost five starters, including all three starting linebackers.

Jamie Collins signed with Detroit, Kyle Van Noy signed with Miami, Duron Harmon was traded to Detroit, and Hightower and Chung opted out. Those five players represented 33 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last season.

Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty remain, but the future has come quicker than expected in Foxborough, with youngsters such as Chase Winovich, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Kyle Dugger, and Josh Uche now forced to step in.

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The opt-outs also added more than $15 million in salary-cap space, which could allow the Patriots to find replacements in free agency or the trade market.

The pandemic seems to have hit the Patriots especially hard. They currently lead the NFL with six players opting out; special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden and two roster bubble players — fullback Danny Vitale and offensive lineman Najee Toran — also decided against playing this season.

This being the Patriots, there is always the thought that there is something more going on behind the scenes. Do the older players sense a rebuild coming and don’t want to be part of it? Are they upset with their contracts? Or is Belichick tanking for Trevor Lawrence?

How will Bill Belichick deal with the opt outs?
How will Bill Belichick deal with the opt outs?John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

While I don’t know these answers with 100 percent certainty, it doesn’t seem like there is anything nefarious in play. It’s likely just a case of three veteran players, all aged 30 and over, making the best decisions for themselves and their families.

First of all, the Patriots may have been hit hard by opt-outs Tuesday, but many more are coming across the league. The deadline hasn’t officially been set yet by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, but it is likely to be around Monday. Why so many Patriots players announced their opt-outs Tuesday I’m not entirely sure (it was reporting day for veterans), but dozens of players around the league likely will be announcing their opt-outs in the next week.

Second, the Patriots have been one of the NFL’s oldest teams for the last five or six years. The older players are generally the ones who will opt out — guys that have young children at home, have already put their bodies through hell, and have already made some money in their careers.

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Chung is entering what would have been his 12th season, Cannon his 10th, and Hightower and Bolden their ninth. They don’t need football the same way young players do.

Third, each has a legitimate reason to not want to play this year. Cannon’s decision was likely an easy one. A 2011 survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Cannon is considered by the NFL to be high-risk.

Hightower and Chung had tougher decisions, as they do not have any underlying health issues. But Hightower has a 2-week-old son at home, and Chung has a child on the way. Given where they are in their careers, who can blame them for wanting to be home supporting their wife and newborn instead of risking their health with football?

These decisions come with significant repercussions, too. The players are walking away from a lot of money, and potentially from their football careers. When you’re over 30, it’s hard to come back to the NFL after taking a year off.

Cannon, 32, is entitled to a $350,000 stipend for being high-risk, and a credited season for benefits purposes. But he’s also turning down as much as $8 million in salary, bonuses, and incentives this year. He is under contract for two more years and now is signed through 2022, but the Patriots could certainly move on next year.

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Hightower, who turned 30 in March, is entitled to a $150,000 salary advance on next season. Otherwise he’s walking away from $8 million in salary and another $2.875 million in bonuses and incentives. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table, which shows how serious this decision is for him. He has one year left on his deal, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we have seen the last of him in a football uniform.

Dont'a Hightower has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots.
Dont'a Hightower has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots.Jessica Rinaldi

Chung, who turns 33 in August, is going to make out OK. He was set to make as much as $6.25 million this year, and will get to keep half of it, thanks to a $3 million roster bonus he made in May, plus a $100,000 offseason bonus. But Chung may have sacrificed his spot on the roster, if second-round pick Dugger makes an impact in 2020.

Bolden, too, is walking away from about $2 million, which is nothing to sneeze at for a guy who made league minimum for most of his eight NFL seasons. Vitale and Toran are walking away from opportunities to make the Patriots and extend their careers.

These are not easy decisions to make, and it will be strange to not see Hightower, Chung, or Cannon on the field this fall. But these Patriots have accepted the reality of the pandemic, and decided that there is more to life than football.

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Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin