Hightower latest of Opt Out Patriots

Ron Borges

The future of the New England Patriots remains as unknown as the short-term fate of the 2020 Season of Covid-19. Nevertheless, they already lead the NFL in one important category.

They have more players opting out of playing for them than any team in pro football.

The Patriots’ list has grown to eight opt outs, six because of coronavirus and two, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, from Belichick virus. 

Where will it stop? 

That’s hard to say, but they have lost four starting linebackers, a starting right tackle, a two special-teams players, the greatest quarterback of his time and a future Hall-of-Fame tight end. As coach Belichick would say, “Not what we’re looking for.’’

One has to wonder what towering Cam Newton is thinking as he looks at his bargain-basement contract and the dwindling list of battle-tested soldiers around him in New England. If one more starting offensive lineman opts out by the August 4 deadline, and Newton may take the year off, too.

One of the prevailing theories behind Belichick’s apparent willingness to walk away from Brady this offseason was that he believed he had one of the best defenses in pro football. Statistically that was certainly the case a year ago as his unit finished first in scoring defense, total defense, lowest opponent QB rating and turnover margin. It was second in pass defense and takeaways, as well as sixth in rushing defense and seventh in sacks, too.

That is a dominant defense even if most of New England's schedule was played against the Division II version of the NFL.

But this morning it is a defense that has -- via opt out -- lost its most critical linebacker in Hightower, who called the defensive signals and been widely acclaimed as both the brains and the brawn of the unit. It's also without all three starting linebackers of a year ago, as well as starting safety Patrick Chung and reliable run stuffing inside linebacker Elandon Roberts.

In fact, five of the Patriots' top eight defensive players of a year ago in terms of percentage of snaps played are gone, meaning half that defense is now opting to play elsewhere ... or nowhere ... but not in New England.

Whether there will be other defections remains to be seen as players have until the jointly league and union imposed August 3 deadline to decide to put up with the health risks and clear irritations of a COVID-19 2020 season or opt out. In Hightower’s case, it will cost him nearly $8 million not to play. He will receive a $150,000 stipend, but he will also have his contract tolled, meaning he will not get pension credit for the season.

Others with medically accepted reasons for opting out, like right tackle cancer survivor Marcus Cannon, will receive $350,000 and credit for the season. But that is still a shortfall of millions. So the choice, even where health is involved, is not easy. Having been made by so many players it is not easy on Belichick, either.

Add to that the loss of the Patriots’ most central offensive player, the nearly mistake-free and gracefully aging Brady, and you can understand why some fans may be starting to shuffle their feet nervously as they consider what is left of a roster that a year ago was knocked out of the playoffs in the wildcard round by the upstart Tennessee Titans and beaten in the regular season by the Chiefs, Ravens and Texans.

Certainly the addition of Newton, if he is healthy, will go a long way toward easing the loss of Brady. But one wonders what may be going through his mind as he sees one defection after another while the team’s cap space swells only weeks after he was forced to sign a minimum-based contract because of cap room. He’s been mum on those matters thus far, but mum is not his normal approach.

So stay tuned.

Newton has said all the right things since signing a deal guaranteeing him only $550,000 and clearly appears motivated by the Panthers' releasing him rather than honoring his contract. He also looks like an impressive physical specimen. But the truth of it is he looked just as physically imposing when first his shoulder, then his foot, fell apart the past three seasons. If he looks and sees his offensive line take another defection or two what might he do then?

It seems likely he’ll play because while there is no financial incentive to keep playing through the pain for someone who has already made $100 million, there is his competitive spirit and the wounded feelings he carries with him to New England after Carolina became probably the first team since he discovered footballs existed not to find a place for him to play.

The challenge for Belichick is how does one replace the loss of all but one of your top five linebackers, a starting safety, your new fullback (Danny Vitale) and the game’s greatest quarterback all in one season? Not to mention a starting right tackle likely to be replaced by either a rookie or a young veteran not active for a single game a year ago.

Belichick handled the Brady defection well, but he had months to plan for it. The opt outs this week by Hightower, Chung, Cannon and the rest are a different story because while he has money to spend there is a shortage of available talent ... and there's the possibility of more defections coming.

Several days ago Gronkowski, who retired rather than play for Belichick last season and made clear he was not willing to come back to the Patriots this season, posted on his Twitter feed: “It’s go time.’’ Brady responded with, “Indeed it is, Robert.’’

In the past few days it’s been “go time’’ in New England, too. But it’s been go-home time -- not go-to-training-camp time. How will Bill Belichick and his remaining Patriots respond to this latest talent drain?

In the era of COVID-19, it’s hard to know, but for the moment it doesn’t look good for the New England Opt Outs.