Bill Belichick last Friday said he fully respected and supported every New England Patriots player choosing to opt out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID-19 concerns.
New England’s team captains echoed that message Sunday.
In a series of video conferences with reporters, center David Andrews, safety Devin McCourty, special teamer Matthew Slater and running back James White all voiced their support for the eight players who have decided not to play this season.
“A lot of respect to those guys — obviously the guys that I got a chance to play with over the years — who decided to opt out,” McCourty said. “I’ve gotten to speak with all those guys, and it’s a tough decision right now with everything that’s going on of what you want to do as far as your family.
“Those guys, they made tough decisions. A lot of people around are asking us how we feel about those guys. They made a hard decision to forgo your contract this year, not to have the opportunity to be around all the guys and how much fun we have. So I have a lot of respect for all those guys. We’ve won a lot of football games together and gone through a lot of things personally. Those guys will still be my friends. I’ll still talk to them all the time.”
As of Sunday afternoon, an NFL-high eight Patriots players had opted out of the season, including respected veterans in Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon and Brandon Bolden who have been played important roles on multiple Super Bowl-winning teams. Hightower and Chung both have served as team captains in the past.
The list of opt-outs also includes two first-year Patriots in fullback Danny Vitale and wide receiver Marqise Lee and two players who joined the organization last season in tight end Matt LaCosse and reserve guard Najee Toran.
“I support those guys 100 percent,” said Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player. “Their No. 1 responsibility as far as I’m concerned is to their family. They owe their families what they see as best for their families — to protect and provide for their families. And that comes well beyond and well before whatever happens at One Patriot Place. So those guys have my full support.
“I respect their decision, and I understand that all those guys made those decisions because they were choosing to put their families first. They were choosing to protect loved ones. They were choosing to protect children, unborn children. They were choosing to respect spouses, parents, and in some cases, they were choosing to protect themselves. So they have my full support.”
White said the Patriots are not pressuring any players to play.
“Everybody’s decision is completely, 100 percent up to them,” the running back said. “Whatever they feel comfortable doing, there’s no pressure from anybody whatsoever. Everybody has their own unique family situations, health situations, and they’re going to make the best decision for them. There’s no pressure whatsoever from anybody.”
Andrews, a 2015 undrafted free agent who got his start with the Patriots by replacing injured center Bryan Stork, said the team’s slew of opt-outs will create chances for young players to contribute.
The in-house options to replace Cannon at right tackle, for instance, include two players who never have appeared in an NFL game (Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron) and one who’s played in just seven (Korey Cunningham). LaCosse’s decision to opt out left the Patriots with just one non-rookie tight end (Ryan Izzo, who’s played six NFL games), and Hightower’s could result in larger roles for rookie linebackers Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Cassh Maluia and De’Jon Harris.
“A lot of guys now are going to have a lot of great opportunities,” Andrews said. “I kind of think about how I got my start in this league — guys being banged up. Different circumstances, but I got an opportunity that maybe I wouldn’t have if guys were healthy at times.
“A lot of young guys right now, younger players, have got big opportunities. They’ve just got to take them and run with them.”