Dont’a Hightower would have been the leader of the defensive front-seven and its most experienced member. Patrick Chung would have filled his normal role as the top safety/linebacker hybrid on the team. Marcus Cannon would have started at right tackle for the fifth year in a row. Brandon Bolden would have been a core special teams presence. Woulda, coulda, shoulda aside, they will all not play for the New England Patriots this year after opting out of their deals earlier this week.
Together with free agent fullback Danny Vitale and backup guard Najee Toran, the four form the group of Patriots to exercise their bargained right to sit out the upcoming season over concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic.
What stands out about the list is its quality. As noted above, Hightower, Chung, Cannon and Bolden were all projected to see prominent action for the team this year due to their previous roles and the experience that they bring to the table as important members of New England’s Dynasty 2.0. Their decisions to opt-out stand out even more when compared to the rest of the league: only 20 non-Patriots have so far opted out, with Kansas City Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif the biggest name among the group.
This leads to a natural follow-up question: Why is it that the Patriots have so many players opt out compared to the NFL’s other 31 trams, and why are so many stars among them?
Speculating about players’ motives to decide on whether to take advantage of the voluntary or high-risk opt-out clause that was embedded into the Collective Bargaining Agreement is a fool’s errand, because every case is different. Dont’a Hightower, for example, welcomed his first child not even two weeks ago; Marcus Cannon is a high-risk player due to his history with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Every player has his own reason why he made his decision one way or the other.
But why do the Patriots, as is so often the case, stand out? Besides each player’s personal motives there are two additional factors that may have had an impact, at least as far as timing is concerned. Both are tied directly to head coach Bill Belichick.
While Belichick has earned a reputation as a stoic, win-at-all-costs figure, this depiction is not entirely accurate. Make no mistake, he cares a lot about his players and their livelihoods, with his investment in the recent social protests just the latest example. There is little doubt the future Hall of Famer actively encouraged his players to take a thorough look at their options and personal situations before making any decision — it would be fully on-brand for him to do that based on his track record.
And those situations have created an environment that made it easy to opt out either due to personal (Hightower, Chung, Vitale) or physical reasons (Cannon). This is especially true for veteran players who have already had a solid income over the course of their careers.
“Four Patriots players that opted out [...] are 32, 30, 30 and 32 years old, respectively,” former New England linebacker Matt Chatham said on Twitter the other day about Cannon, Hightower, Bolden and Chung. “Different stuff going on at that life stage for an NFL player, not nearly as big of a surprise as it may seem. We start seeing 26/27-year-olds in midst of their first big free agency deal, different story.”
The second factor mentioned has to do with the Patriots’ roster construction process and Belichick’s drive to always be one step ahead of his competition. Having players report back early about their respective decisions is just the latest example of that. While a lot can still change between now and the opt-out deadline that comes no earlier than August 4th, the Patriots already have a first impression of their roster’s intentions that other teams simply may not have just yet.
Belichick encouraging his players to make decisions and to announce them sooner rather than later is also why the team reportedly feels it has reached the end of its opt-out phase already. Other clubs may just be at the beginning, meanwhile, while New England already can start surveying the free agency field and the remaining in-house talent for possible replacement options.
Ultimately, though, there is no one singular reason why the Patriots currently lead the league in opt-outs. Instead, a multitude of factors ranging from the team’s veteran-heavy roster, to personal situations, to the team’s head coach has likely had an impact on the recent developments.