The New England Patriots are going to be down three key starters as they roll into training camp and look forward to the 2020 season. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, starting linebacker Dont'a Hightower has decided to opt out of the 2020 season. This news comes on the heels of starting right tackle Marcus Cannon also electing to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, as first reported by Jim Murray of 98.5 The Sports Hub and confirmed by multiple reports. Along with Hightower and Cannon, safety Patrick Chung has told Mike Reiss of ESPN that he plans to opt-out of this season as well.
Hightower has been a fixture in New England's defense since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2012. He's been a starter essentially upon stepping into the NFL and totaled 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four passes defended in 2019. The 30-year-old and his fiancée had a baby back in mid-July and noted to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network that they "are just more concerned with the health of our family than football — especially the new addition to our family."
Cannon, who was entering his 10th season in the NFL, has been with the Patriots since being selected in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of TCU. The 32-year-old would have been a higher selection that year but was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the pre-draft process and that is likely a key reason why he is deciding to sit 2020 out as the pandemic continues to sweep through the country. According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Cannon is set to receive the $350,000 high-risk amount in salary as a cancer survivor.
As for who may be in the running to replace him on the right side, the Patriots did draft tackle Yodny Cajuste in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of West Virginia. He sat out all of last year with a quad injury but should be a candidate for the job. 2020 sixth-round pick Justin Herron out of Wake Forest should also be under consideration as will backup Korey Cunningham.
When speaking about a potential replacement for Hightower, Ja'Whaun Bentley steps into an even more important role in 2020 and rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche could be asked to contribute right out of the shoot.
Meanwhile, Chung is entering his 12th season in the NFL and 11th with New England. The strong safety has been a key piece to the Patriots secondary, serving as a box safety. He totaled 51 tackles in 2019 to go along with three passes defended. New England did draft safety Kyle Dugger in the second round earlier this offseason and does draw some comparisons to Chung. If he's able to quickly get up to speed, he could be the instant replacement for Chung in 2020.
Hightower, Cannon and Chung make it a total of six Patriots who have decided to sit out of 2020 so far, as running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and reserve offensive lineman Najee Toran have also decided to opt out, according to reports. Bolden is the biggest name out of this tier to opt out and has been a versatile piece for Bill Belichick in both the backfield and on special teams. As it relates to Vitale, he was the prime candidate to take over for James Develin, who retired this offseason.