Ryan L. Fox
As the 2020 NFL Season was preparing to start with training camp, there was a major concern of the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak occurring in a team facility. With some places in the United States going back into lockdown due to COVID-19 as well as other states imposing travel restrictions and guidelines, many NFL players voiced their opinions about the situation. So, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed back on July 24 that players who feel uncomfortable about playing during the 2020 season can could opt out of the season. The deadline for that was August 6 at 4 P.M. EST.
The opt out deadline came and past as 66 NFL Players opted out for 2020 season. Some did due to medical issues while others did it due to personal reasons (i.e. mostly dealing with family). But the most surprising thing to come out of this was that out of all the 32 NFL teams, the New England Patriots had the most players opting out of the season with 8.
Now the NFL categorized each opt out situation as followed:
Voluntary – Players who voluntarily opt out for whatever reason
Higher Risk – Players who have a medical condition (i.e. compromised immune system due to a bout with another disease like cancer)
Unspecified – Players who opted out but did not give a reason why
The 8 Patriots players who ended up opting out were as followed as categorized by each opt out situation:
Voluntary: LB Dont'a Hightower, FB Dan Vitale, RB Brandon Bolden, OL Najee Toran, WR Marqise Lee
Higher Risk: OT Marcus Cannon
Unspecified: S Patrick Chung, TE Matt LaCosse
Out of that group of 8 players, the biggest names on the opt out list were Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, and Marcus Canon. Those 3 players were veteran starters on both sides of the ball (Hightower and Chung on defense and Cannon on offense) and were going to be looked on to help the team as they begin the season without future Hall-of-Famer QB Tom Brady being under center.
It is no shocker that RT Marcus Cannon is listed under the Higher Risk category of opt outs. Cannon is actually a cancer survivor as he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma back in 2011 after he was drafted out of TCU by the Patriots in the 5th round of that year’s draft. Although it is in remission, Cannon still falls under the demographic of people with underlining health issues and is more susceptible to fatality due to COVID-19.
With players like Hightower, Chung, and Lee, the reason why they chose to opt out was due to family reasons. As it turns out, each of those players recently had a newborn baby with their significant other (wife or girlfriend). So rather than risk the health of the newborn child, they decided it was best to opt out of the season.
Then with the rest of the Patriots players (Bolden, Vitale, Toran, LaCosse), it is really unclear why they chose to opt out of the 2020 season. No recent news blurbs have come out to specify why those specific players have opted out, so it is left to speculation.
Now the good news is that there is no actual repercussion of opting out for the players. In fact, those who opted out will be compensated accordingly ($150k for voluntary opt outs, $350k for high risk opt outs) as well as have gained a year of service, which could benefit those with 1-year left on their current contracts and wish to hit free agency.
For NFL teams, it is a double-edged sword. The good news is that teams with players who opted out will receive a form of cap relief instead of taking on the player’s 2020 salary. This is can allow teams to sign any free agents out there for any position that they need. The bad news is that if a quality starter on a team opts out, then it would be tricky for them to replace them with somebody at the same talent level.
For the Patriots, that is exactly what they are facing right now.
Outside of LaCosse and Toran, each of the players listed in the opt outs were key starters or were going to be relied heavily in the upcoming 2020 season.
On offense, the Patriots are going to lose an important cognitive peace in Marcus Cannon, who has been an anchor in that spot for nearly a decade. With losing Dante Scarnecchia to retirement again, Cannon was going to be looked upon as an important leader on the offensive line. With previous Patriots FB Frank Develin retiring this past offseason, Vitale was going to be called upon to not only take up his position and not only be called upon for blocking for the likes of RBs Sony Michel and James White but be used as like an H-Back to catch swing passes out of the backfield. Marqise Lee was going to be looked as a means to help bolster a Patriots receiving core that needed a receiver with speed along the outside.
On defense though is where the Patriots will feel the impact of losing both Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung. Both were considered as leaders on defense, each playing a key role during the team’s 4 Super Bowl runs within the last 6 years. Hightower was going to be looked upon as a veteran leader in the front 7 that was going to go through some changes with the loss of key players like LB Jamie Collins and LB/Edge Kyle Van Noy to free agency. Chung was considered one of the key leaders in the secondary that could coordinate the coverage, telling his fellow defensive backs what the coverage is and who they need to cover. Not to mention that both players have been known to come up with big plays in key moments in the game.
On special teams, the loss of a key player in Brandon Bolden will not bode well for a team that takes pride in that unit. Whether it is on the punt team, punt coverage, kickoff, or kick return, Bolden is looked as the second go-to guy on those squads behind teammate and fellow special teamer WR Matthew Slater. Not to mention that he sometimes is called upon to help run the ball on offense as well.
The mantra of the Patriots has always been ‘next man up’. It has been preached by coach Bill Belichick through his entire 20-year tenure with the team. A mantra that has lead to 6 Super Bowl titles in 9 appearances as well as become a way of how the team operates.
But with key players opting out before the start of the 2020 regular season and player-coach interactions as well as mini-camps limited due to COVID-19, losing not just key starters but key players and team leaders could prove in a season where there is limited room for error.
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