BOSTON — Six members of the New England Patriots have opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 health concerns, according to multiple reports.
The six players are linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and offensive guard Najee Toran.
Hightower, a three-time Super Bowl champion who was coming off his second Pro Bowl selection last fall, was set to be New England’s top returning linebacker. Hightower became a first-time father earlier this summer, as did Vitale, who was the favorite to take over for James Develin as the team’s starting fullback.
Chung has been New England’s starting strong safety for the better part of a decade, and his decision leaves a hole the team’s secondary and potentially creates an opportunity for top draft pick Kyle Dugger.
Cannon, a former fifth-round draft pick in 2011 who has been New England’s full-time starting right tackle since 2016, will leave a hole on what was expected to be among the top offensive lines in football. Cannon is also at higher medical risk due to his status as a cancer survivor.
Toran spent all of 2019 on the Patriots practice squad and would most likely have been on the practice squad again this fall.
The decisions to opt out leave the Patriots with some big holes to fill heading into training camp. Following the offseason departures of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency, Hightower was already the lone returning contributor who had played the majority of the team’s defensive snaps last year. Now the team will have to replace the vast majority of its linebacking corps, with third-year pro Ja’Whaun Bentley, second-year pro Chase Winovich and rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings among the most promising options.
Cannon’s absence also leaves a question mark at right tackle. In addition to starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn, the Patriots also have second-year pro Yodny Cajuste — who missed his entire rookie season due to injury — as well as Korey Cunningham.
With Vitale gone, the starting fullback competition will now be waged by Jakob Johnson, an International Player Pathway participant from Germany who briefly filled in for Develin last year before going down with injury, and rookie tight end Dalton Keene.
Though NFL veterans can officially begin reporting to training camp Tuesday, the Patriots say their players are not reporting until this upcoming weekend.
As of Monday, the team was awaiting approval of its Infectious Disease Emergency Response plan to help protect its players and staff during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.