The New England Patriots have suffered a major depletion in their lineup for the upcoming season, with six players choosing to opt-out due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic so far. Veteran safety Patrick Chung was the latest Patriot to decide that he will sit out the upcoming season, rather than risk acquiring the dreaded virus, according to Mike Reiss of ESPN. Earlier, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and offensive guard Najee Toran decided to opt-out of the 2020 season due to health concerns. The 32-year-old Chung recently signed a two-year contract extension with the Patriots, where he spent all but one of his 11 NFL seasons.

Chung’s decision to opt-out is a big loss for the defense as he was expected to start at strong safety.

Earlier, Hightower announced his decision to opt-out because of the birth of his son two weeks ago. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Hightower is prioritizing the health of his family amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football -- especially the new addition to our family," Rapoport said in a tweet, quoting Hightower. Aside from his baby, Hightower also wants to protect his mother, L'Tanya, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes.

Patriots have enough cap room

The opt-outs have provided the Patriots with enough cap space to find free agents who could fill the void.

The decision of Hightower and Cannon, two of the top 10 highest-paid players in New England, to sit out the upcoming season provided the Patriots with more than $15 million in cap space. With the flurry of opt-outs, the Patriots have more than $24 million in cap space from around $7 million. At the start of the season, the Patriots lost key players such as Tom Brady and Kyle Van Noy due to lack in cap room.

Despite the lack in cap space, the Patriots have signed quarterback Cam Newton to an incentive-laden deal. The Patriots then created cap space by entering into settlements with former wide receiver Antonio Brown and the family of late tight end Aaron Hernandez.

Hightower’s opt-out leaves huge void

Finding a replacement for Hightower will be a high priority for the Patriots.

In all of his nine years with the Patriots, Hightower is considered a vital cog in their defense. He won three Super Bowl rings and made it to two Pro Bowls in 2016 and 2019. Free-agent edge defender Jadeveon Clowney is the best available option for the Patriots. Clowney played for Seattle last season, and the Seahawks want him back for the upcoming season, but the defender reportedly rejected a $15 million one-year deal. It remains to be seen if head coach Bill Belichick would spend a lot of money for a single defender like Clowney. According to Jeff P. Howe of The Athletic, the Patriots have yet to reach out to Clowney, but it could “change at some point.” In a report by Zack Cox of New England Sports Network, there are 12 free agents that the Patriots could sign, including Clowney.

These are offensive tackles Cordy Glenn, Demar Dotson, Jared Veldheer, LaAdrian Waddle, Marshall Newhouse, linebackers Mark Barron, Nigel Bradham, Clay Matthews and safeties Reshad Jones, Eric Reid, Tony Jefferson.

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