Before the 2020 season began the New England Patriots had a league-high eight players opt out of the season due to concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Those players were linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, tackle Marcus Cannon, wide receiver Marqise Lee, fullback Danny Vitale, running back Brandon Bolden, tight end Matt LaCosse and offensive lineman Najee Toran.
Regarding their status for the 2021 season, ESPN's Patriots reporter Mike Reiss gave an update on some of those players and their chances of returning next season:
The Patriots asked the eight players who opted out of the 2020 season to return for year-end physicals last week. "I got to Boston on Sunday, did the physical and everything was perfect. As far as this year goes, I'm eager to get back," relayed receiver Marqise Lee.
He said he has no regrets about opting out to protect his newborn daughter, Alia, and plans to learn more about NFL plans but seems to be trending toward playing in 2021. Among the others, running back Brandon Bolden has said he plans to play. My hunch is that safety Patrick Chung, tight end Matt LaCosse and fullback Danny Vitale make the same decision, while in my opinion, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and linebacker Dont'a Hightower are less of a certainty to return.
Cannon, 33, being less of a certainty to return to football isn't a complete surprise. Given the fact that he is older and may not even have a starting job when he comes back because of the strong play of 2020 fifth-round pick Justin Herron, there are plenty of reasons for Cannon to call it a career.
The Patriots would be in a tough spot if Hightower were to not return, however. The two-time Pro Bowler is a centerpiece of New England's linebacking corps, and his absence took a big toll on that unit in 2020. If Hightower decided to hang up his cleats for good, then it may be another year or two before we see a major improvement by New England's linebackers.
Chung's return brings into question how the reps would be split between him, Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips. Both Dugger and Phillips played exceptional in their first season as a Patriot, which puts into question how much Chung, 33, would actually see the field if he were to return.
As for Bolden, Lee, LaCosse, Vitale and Toran: all five of them will have to fight for a roster spot come August.