New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and running back Brandon Bolden have reportedly decided to opt out of the 2020 NFL season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Hightower explained his decision on social media:
Meanwhile, Chung informed ESPN's Mike Reiss of his decision Tuesday.
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reported Monday that Cannon, the Pats' projected starter at right tackle, "intends" to inform the team of his decision after discussions with his family.
Bolden joined the opt-out group Tuesday, per Reiss.
Hightower is coming off his second career Pro Bowl selection in 2019 after recording 71 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, four passes defended and a fumble recovery across 15 appearances last season.
He provided a statement to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network about his decision:
Ian Rapoport @RapSheet
A message from #Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower, one of the highest profile players opting out amid the Coronavirus: “Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football — especially the new addition to our family.” Hightower has a 2-week-old son.
The 30-year-old Tennessee native was a first-round pick of the Pats out of Alabama in 2012, and he's been part of three Super Bowl-winning teams during his career.
"Sometimes players, maybe they can't even tell you how they know what the right thing to do is, they just know what the right thing to do is. Sometimes they anticipate it. Sometimes it just comes to them just instinctively. But High's a smart player. He can play multiple positions. The mental part of the game seems to come very easy for him, going between Mike or Sam or Will or defensive end or a different position in pass rush on third down. Assignment-wise, all those come pretty easily for him, and athletically he has a great combination of size, power, pass rush, zone, man coverage—he's done all those things for us."
Ja'Whaun Bentley should get the first crack to fill the starting spot, but the Pats will likely use a committee approach to fill the wide-ranging void. Rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings are among the other reserves now ticketed for more high-profile roles.
Chung has been a mainstay in the New England defensive backfield for the better part of the last decade. A second-round pick in 2009, he has spent 10 of his 11 NFL seasons with the Patriots, piling up 778 career tackles, 11 interceptions and 4.5 sacks. He has helped the franchise win three Super Bowl titles in his career.
Last season, the 32-year-old racked up 51 tackles and three pass deflections.
Of note, Chung had missed just five contests since rejoining New England in 2014.
Meanwhile, Cannon has become a stabilizing force along the Patriots line since becoming a starter in 2016. He made 15 starts for the team at right tackle last season.
The 32-year-old TCU product was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma before the Pats selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. He made his team debut that November after announcing he was in remission, and he played a mostly reserve role over his first five seasons.
Korey Cunningham is the best bet to take over as the Pats' starting right tackle, barring a late signing or trade. Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron are the team's other reserve tackles.
Bolden spent the first six years of his NFL career with New England. He left to sign the with AFC East rival Miami Dolphins in 2018 but returned ahead of the 2019 campaign.
He recorded just 15 carries in 15 appearances for the Patriots last season while making most of his contributions on special teams.
His absence shouldn't have a major impact on the depth chart with Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead set to split backfield snaps. Damien Harris will likely slide into the role of fourth running back and special teams asset.
Fullback Danny Vitale and offensive lineman Najee Toran were the first two Patriots to announce they are opting out of the 2020 season.
Bleacher Report's David Gardner interviews athletes and other sports figures for the podcast How to Survive Without Sports.