The words “opt-out” just don’t seem to fit in professional sports. But in these times, with COVID-19 still a big problem nationwide, opting out has been a realistic option for athletes. NFL players had to wrestle with decisions whether to play and risk contracting the virus or to sit out the season and not take that chance.
Assuming there will be an NFL season, some big names have chosen to opt-out due to health concerns. Over 65 players are on the opt-out list after Thursday’s deadline to inform teams arrived. Pro Football Network looks at five players whose loss due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will affect their teams the most.
Who are the top NFL players that have opted out and who can replace them?
5. Star Lotuleilei, DT, Buffalo Bills
The Bills always seem to do well in drafting or signing defensive linemen, but they lose a good one this season with Lotuleilei deciding to opt-out.
Lotuleilei does what solid nose tackles do well — he takes up space and takes on blockers to help his teammates make plays. Nothing flashy, just dirty work, and while he doesn’t have the All-Pro or Pro Bowl accolades, Lotuleilei has had a good career and seems to be a good fit in Buffalo, where defense is a source of pride and production.
The good news for the Bills is that they look like they’ve done their homework in lining up a potential replacement and depth. They landed Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson in free agency, and both offer plenty of upside. Butler had his best year in 2019 with the Carolina Panthers, and Jefferson is among a group of defensive linemen who can play inside or outside.
4. Eddie Goldman, DT, Chicago Bears
The Bears were one of only six NFL teams to allow fewer than four yards per carry, and Goldman had no small part in that defense with his ability to plug up the middle as the nose tackle. But he has dealt with asthma and apparently didn’t want to risk his health by playing with the possibility of contracting the coronavirus.
Goldman receives the $350,000 stipend for opting out as a player deemed high risk for contracting COVID-19.
The Bears have veteran John Jenkins — signed in free agency earlier this year — in the fold. He has the size and experience to be a capable fill-in for Goldman at defensive tackle, taking on the same role as Goldman, that of run stuffer. Bilal Nichols, a third-year pro, also figures to get his opportunity on the interior defensive line.
Goldman often doesn’t stand out with his play, but his work in the trenches is something the Bears will miss, especially if they hope to remain as one of the NFL’s top defenses again this season
3. Nate Solder, LT, New York Giants
Solder has been dependable over his NFL career, and his solid play and pedigree as a two-time Super Bowl champion helped him earn a four-year, $64 million contract when he joined the Giants in 2018. But with a new baby, his older son’s fight against cancer, and his own fairly recent cancer battle, Solder decided to opt-out to protect the health of his family.
The Giants will miss Solder’s veteran leadership from a very important position on the field, especially because he’s charged with protecting up-and-coming quarterback Daniel Jones. But all indications are that the Giants were prepared for this possibility when they signed Cameron Fleming in free agency from the Dallas Cowboys. Flemming can play both left and right tackle and has 11 postseason games on his resume.
The Giants also chose former Georgia standout Andrew Thomas with the fourth overall pick of the NFL Draft this year, and Thomas can also play both spots. Then they added former UConn tackle Matt Peart in the third round.
2. C.J. Mosley, LB, New York Jets
The last week of July was a tough one for Jets fans, who saw star safety Jamal Adams get traded (though a decent haul came in return) and Mosley announce that he was opting out for personal reasons.
Mosley is the Jets’ highest-paid defensive player and has the credentials to support his big contract. He’s a four-time Pro Bowler with his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, but played in only two games for the Jets in 2019 due to a groin injury.
Still, his leadership and signal calling will need to be replaced. It’s yet unclear whom the Jets will call upon to take Mosley’s spot alongside Avery Williamson, who is expected back from injury, or it could be a committee situation involving Neville Hewitt, Blake Cashman, and new arrival Patrick Onwuasor.
1. Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots
Tom Brady is gone. Eight Patriots, including Hightower, have opted out, including veteran defensive back Patrick Chung. But these are Patriots led by Bill Belichick, so New England is more likely to be just fine than not.
But there’s a big void in the Pats’ defense without Hightower. A three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowler, he’s a captain and calls the defensive signals, and has made his share of big plays in big games.
Who fills the void? The Patriots are traditionally very good at finding and developing lower-round draft picks into impact players. So this year could be the one that Ja’Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round draft pick two years ago, steps in and shines with Hightower out.
Jose M. Romero has covered the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals over a long career in sports writing. Follow him on Twitter @RomeroJoseM.