How six players opting out has altered Patriots' outlook for 2020

Schefter expects more NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season (1:37)

Adam Schefter provides insight into why numerous players have decided to opt out of the 2020 NFL season. (1:37)

Dont'a Hightower's nickname is "Boomtower," in part because of his reputation for delivering big hits on the field. It also fits when describing how his decision to opt out of the 2020 NFL season because of the coronavirus pandemic will affect the New England Patriots.

Boom! That hurts.

The Patriots have had six players decide to opt out -- a group that includes starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, starting safety Patrick Chung, reserve running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and reserve center/guard Najee Toran. None hits the Patriots harder than Hightower.

The decisions highlight the less-than-ideal situation the Patriots are facing. In a span of 48 hours, they have had more players opt out than any team in the NFL. Hightower, Cannon and Chung, in particular, qualify as high-impact players. Throughout the offseason, so much of the attention surrounding the team focused on Tom Brady's free-agent departure. Everyone knew the Patriots would look much different without the quarterback after 20 years.

But few could have envisioned it would be this different.

New England was already without starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins) and Jamie Collins Sr. (Lions) after their free-agent departures, in addition to reserve linebacker Elandon Roberts (Dolphins). So in a lot of ways, Hightower was the glue still holding things together in the middle of the defense.

There is naturally going to be a lot of analysis about how the Patriots fill the voids, but before going there, let's first acknowledge the obvious: These are intensely personal decisions for all NFL players.

Some recently welcomed babies to their families, or are expecting them. Others have overcome cancer or other health scares, and the risk to play the game they love is too great for them.

"It only takes one person testing positive, you come into the building, and that thing will spread like wildfire," said Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty Sunday night on his "Double Coverage" podcast with his brother, Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty.

Hightower, 30, became a first-time father on July 16. He spoke with the McCourtys on their podcast this week about fatherhood: "I don't have any words to describe it. Asking what to look forward to and expect, it was that and then some."

According to an agreement approved by both the league and the NFL Players Association, players considered high-risk for COVID-19 can earn $350,000 and an accrued NFL season if they choose to opt out. Players without risk can earn $150,000 for opting out.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is often masterful at getting his team focused by imploring players to avoid outside distractions, but this is a different beast. So getting those who have opted to play into the building safely will be his first victory.

Once that happens, then maybe there can be some X's and O's to dissect.

Some of the roster holes to fill look like craters right now.

Between free-agent departures and opt-out decisions, the Patriots have lost eight of the 15 players who played the highest total of snaps for them last season. That covers everyone from Brady (1,080 snaps, second on team) to Chung (606 snaps, 15th). No void looks more significant than linebacker, where Van Noy (766 snaps, ninth on team), Collins (765, 10th) and Hightower (684, 12th) all played huge roles on the NFL's top-ranked unit in 2019.

Now, the development of 2018 fifth-round pick Ja'Whaun Bentley (Purdue) is even more critical. Bentley is a top candidate to take over Hightower's role as the signal-caller on defense. Bentley played 27% of the defensive snaps in 2019, usually on early downs. Can he become an every-down player like Hightower?

Similar to Bentley, the Patriots would benefit greatly from another step forward from 2019 third-round pick Chase Winovich, who showed promise as a pass-rusher (5.5 sacks) in a niche role as a rookie (29% of the snaps).

More could also be asked of rookie linebackers Josh Uche (second round, No. 60) and Anfernee Jennings (third round, No. 87). Like Hightower (6-foot-3, 260), Jennings played at Alabama and fits the mold of a bigger, physical presence. At 6-foot-3 and 259 pounds, he might not have the speed and lateral movement desired in an off-the-line linebacker role, but he could bring some of the same type of "boom!" as Hightower.

The same could be said with top draft pick Kyle Dugger (second round, No. 37), who is among the candidates to fill Chung's spot as a valuable safety/linebacker matching up against opposing tight ends.

But then there's this: Relying too heavily on rookies in an abbreviated training camp without preseason games comes with greater risk.

The Patriots, in an unprecedented year filled with opt-outs, might have no alternative.