Five players from the New England Patriots have announced that they are to opt out of the upcoming NFL season after citing health concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Pro Bowl linebacker Hightower was joined by teammates Danny Vitale, Marcus Cannon, Brandon Bolden and Najee Toran in announcing that they will not be available for selection for the 2020 season due to start in September. 

This means that each of the players will forgo several millions of dollars in yearly salary.

The loss of these players – and Hightower in particular – will come as a blow to Bill Belichick’s Patriots, who lost legendary starting quarterback Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the off-season – the first time in two decades that the famous Brady-Belichick tandem has been broken. 

While Brady’s departure wasn’t related to the coronavirus pandemic, the global health crisis has left its mark on the Patriots more than any other team so far in the NFL.

Patriots’ three-time Super-Bowl champion and Pro-Bowl ILB Dont’a Hightower is opting out of the 2020 season, league sources tell ESPN.Hightower is scheduled to make $8 million in base salary. He had a baby July 16.

Who is gonna be the insensitive dumbass that will criticize Dont’a Hightower for making the competely understandable choice as a new dad to opt out of the 2020 season? I support #Hightower!

I can’t opt out of a $100 Job…opting to not make $8 million this year… give me $8 million I’ll play #nfl#Patriots#hightower

In Hightower’s case, the leader of the team’s linebacking unit totaled 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four passes defended last season, but the team will now have to find another defensive anchor after he revealed that he and his fiancee had a baby this month and that he is “more concerned with the health of our family than football — especially the new addition to our family.”

The loss of veteran starting right tackle Cannon is another blow to the team, though Belichick is expected to plug in last year’s third-round draft pick Yodney Cajuste to fill the hole.

The absence of fullback Vitale and running back Bolden, meanwhile, further stretches the Patriots’ running game – something they are expected to rely heavily upon in the initial stages of the post-Brady era. 

The Patriots playing squad is expected to arrive at the team’s Gillette Stadium for comprehensive COVID-19 testing ahead of the return of team training activities. 

It was previously revealed by the NFL that no pre-season games will take place in advance of the league’s kickoff in the second week of September. 

However, the practicalities of playing a full NFL season as normal (albeit without fans in stadiums) has been called into question after several positive coronavirus tests for players from the Miami Marlins threatened to impede, or even derail, the Major League Baseball season just days after it began.