The Patriots took four more opt-out blows Tuesday, with standouts in all three phases of the game electing to sit out the 2020 season because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Marcus Cannon, and running back/special teams stalwart Brandon Bolden, all of whom have won multiple Super Bowls, will sit out, according to league sources.
Under league rules, the opt-outs are “generally irrevocable” once the paperwork is filed. It’s a vague phrase, however, so a player may be able to apply for reinstatement if something extraordinary happened, such as the discovery of a COVID-19 vaccine.
All of the opting-out players are eligible for stipends of $150,000 or $350,000 and their contracts toll, meaning their deals kick over to next season. The latest decisions leave the Patriots with approximately $25 million in salary cap space.
Hightower, 30, who was set to make $8 million in base salary, is the biggest name to skip the season. He and his fiancée welcomed their first child earlier this month, and Hightower has long been an advocate for diabetes fund-raising after his mother, L’Tanya, was diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic.
Hightower issued a statement via social media Tuesday afternoon.
A three-time Super Bowl champion as well as a Pro Bowler and captain, Hightower was the leader of the Patriots front seven, and his absence further depletes a corps that lost Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins), Jamie Collins (Lions), and Elandon Roberts (Dolphins) in free agency.
Ja’Whaun Bentley and newcomer Brandon Copeland will be counted on to help mold a group of rookie linebackers that includes Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Cassh Maluia, and De’Jon Harris.
If the Patriots chose the free agency route, edge linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the most high-profile name still on the market, could be a nice fit. Everson Griffen, another prized free agent, also is a name to watch.
Chung is another linchpin of the defense and along with Devin McCourty forms one of the best safety tandems in the league. A three-time Super Bowl champ, he has been called one of the best players in the league by Bill Belichick and serves in a variety of hybrid roles.
Chung, 32, who had a scheduled cap hit of $5.1 million, recently hinted that he was at least thinking of opting out, tweeting in an exchange with Hightower that “if they don’t get it together. I’m going to be home with my pregnant girl, my 9 year old son and my 80 year old dad.”
The Patriots used their top draft pick this year on safety Kyle Dugger, and he could be used in similar fashion to Chung, whether it’s covering tight ends or providing run support. The club also has veterans Terrence Brooks, Adrian Phillips, and Cody Davis, and undrafted rookie Myles Bryant on the roster at safety.
Cannon, 32, has been a steady presence for the last 10 seasons and, like Hightower and Chung, has three Super Bowl rings. He had a cap hit of $9.6 million. Cannon likely qualifies for the $350,000 stipend as he is a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011.
Cannon’s absence leaves the Patriots terribly thin at tackle, and it’s likely some of the vacant roster spots will be filled by tackles. Yodny Cajuste, a third-round pick in 2019 who spent his entire rookie season on the reserve/non-football injury list, projects as a leading candidate to slide into Cannon’s spot.
Korey Cunningham and rookie Justin Herron, a sixth-round pick from Wake Forest, also are on the roster at tackle. As for available free agents, Cordy Glenn and former Patriots LaAdrian Waddle and Marshall Newhouse could be possible targets.
Bolden, 30, is one of the top special teams players and most popular personalities in the Patriots locker room. He carries a salary-cap hit of nearly $2 million.
Bolden serves as an important depth piece in the running back room, and he can run every receiver route.
The Patriots still have excellent backfield depth, though starter Sony Michel is coming back from a foot injury.
They have James White, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, and J.J. Taylor, all of whom are multidimensional backs who can run the ball and serve as receivers out of the backfield.
Bolden also was the club’s top kickoff returner, and now that vacancy shapes up as one of the top battles of the summer. Dugger and fellow rookie Jeff Thomas along with Burkhead and second-year man Gunner Olszewski will get plenty of reps.