Reality of players opting out could drastically alter 2020 NFL season

Reality of players opting out could drastically alter 2020 NFL season

First thing Tuesday morning, Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones took to Twitter to say, “I don’t know who needs to hear this but you can’t social distance football … “

Jones soon got an amen from Dont'a Hightower: “Ain’t no way.”

And another from Patrick Chung: “Not a damn shot. They are trippin’.”

There were plenty of “But, but, but … ” rebuttals in the replies to Jones’ tweet.

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Folks pointing out that the MLS, MMA and English Premier League are back to action with success; that it’s hard to distance in other professions too; that the odds of a young, fully healthy athlete contracting a case that even requires hospitalization is infinitesimally small.

None of which are going to make Jones say, “Gee. They’re right. I have nothing to worry about.”

Be assured, Jones, Hightower and Chung are just the tip of a very large iceberg of players reluctant to play in 2020 with coronavirus still raging. Despite that reluctance, most will still play. But many may not.

Which brings us to the “opt-out” issue the NFL and NFLPA are wrangling over right now. It has the potential to be the biggest obstacle to getting camps started and — when some players inevitably do opt out — it could quickly and drastically alter teams for the 2020 season.

According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, the NFLPA’s asks are these:

  • An opt-out clause for at-risk players to receive salary (but not bonuses) if they decide not to play.
  • An opt-out clause for players with at-risk families to earn an accrued season and benefits if they decide not to play.
  • An opt-out clause for players who leave the team after reporting (terms uncertain).
  • A $250,000 stipend guaranteed to all players if they show up to camp and everything is shut down because of COVID-19 concerns. That amount rises to $500,000 if the season starts, only to be shut down.

According to Fowler, a memo last month listed these as “considerations for high-risk individuals”

  • African American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander
  • BMI ≥ 28
  • Sleep apnea
  • Hypertension
  • Altered immunity
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Cardiac disease

Rookies for some teams are scheduled to report to camp July 21. Patriots rookies are scheduled to show on July 23. Veterans will be a week later. Yet the opt-out provision is still unresolved.

No other sport requires the amount of contact football does. No other sport has rosters even close to the size of an NFL team.

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And considering the “at-risk” list from the memo, there are scores of players who’d fall into those categories. The league is 70 percent African-American. Along the offensive and defensive lines where 300-pound players are routine, BMIs over 28 are going to be the norm.

Meanwhile, not included on the “at-risk” list from the league memo is sickle cell disease. Sickle cell is included on the Centers for Disease Control list of people with “increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19.”

According to an article titled “Playing Through Sickle Cell” from the website The Undefeated, “One out of every 365 black births results in a sickle cell disease diagnosis.”

Separately, the article notes, “Between 1 million and 3 million Americans, and upward of 10 percent of all African-Americans have sickle cell trait. Most with the trait are asymptomatic, but under unique circumstances, including intense physical activity, high altitude and severe dehydration, normal red blood cells can become sickled, which means athletes are at higher risk of being affected.”

A July, 2017 article on the website Bleacher Report noted that, at that time, there were “26 deaths in NCAA Division I football (since 2000), 11 due to sickle cell trait, experts said.”

Sickle cell, the prevalence of players who would be considered obese and the unavoidable amount of physical contact are all factors for many NFL players as they consider returning to work in an intensely physical job.

No matter how carefully teams screen, no matter how many temperatures are taken, no matter how committed teams pledge to be about masking up on the premises, there’s no way to fully allay the concerns of players who have these pre-existing conditions.

A player like Patriots center David Andrews, who missed all of 2019 because of a condition that caused blood clots in his lungs, will have to reconcile whether health risks from a disease that attacks the respiratory system are worth taking.

How can the league counter those concerns? It can’t. How will it respond to players who want to opt out? So far, it hasn’t. Not in any concrete way.

“You think people care (about the risks players are about to undertake)?” one player asked me this week. “People want to watch football.”

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL

Thursday's deadline for players to opt out of the 2020 NFL season has come and gone.

A total of eight New England Patriots players, including linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, and tackle Marcus Cannon, have chosen to sit out of the 2020 campaign due to concerns about the coronavirus.

With the Pats impacted by opt outs more than any other team, Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry discuss on a brand new Patriots Talk Podcast the toll they will have on New England this season.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Measuring the toll that opt-outs took around the NFL | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

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"Dont'a Hightower may end up being the most high-profile guy that chooses to opt out. I would say Patrick Chung and Marcus Cannon are somewhere in that next tier," Perry said. "So when you have three starting-caliber players and four real contributors ... there's no other team in the league I think you can look at and say they've been just as hard by these opt-outs as the Patriots.

"And we talked about what they might do to fill in. I think right now is the most important time because if you're somebody like Josh Uche or Ja'Whaun Bentley or Yodny Cajuste, it doesn't matter that you're getting no time on the field right now. You have to squeeze every last drop out of every single meeting that you have the opportunity to attend, every rep you can do in the weight room ... you're going to be thrown right into the fire and you have to make sure that you're ready."

There is some optimism heading into the new season, believe it or not. Perry notes that the defense -- even after all of the opt outs -- might be better than expected for New England in 2020.

"I think if you look at the Patriots defense, I think that is the one thing that we all looked at even before they signed Cam Newton and said, 'If you were hoping they were gonna suck for Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields or somebody else near the top of the draft, the defense might do you in this year," said Perry. "Because they still should be good. Even if they're not the best defense in football, they still have arguably the best secondary in the league.

"And even without Dont'a Hightower, they have enough pieces and they've done well enough to scheme quarterback pressure that it should give you a representative effort each and every week which still some teams across the league you look at these rosters and wonder how they're gonna compete at all."

Curran and Perry also discuss power rankings in the AFC East after the opt outs, whether the Patriots offense will be fun to watch, takeaways from Tom Brady's introductory press conference with the Buccaneers, and why Brady may struggle in Tampa Bay.

Check out the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or on YouTube.

NFL Power Rankings: Where do Patriots stack up after opt-outs?

NFL Power Rankings: Where do Patriots stack up after opt-outs?

So what matters the most this year? Is it the guys you had in 2019 who are coming back? Is it the guys you added in the offseason? Is it the young guys you drafted? Is it the length of time the coaching staff’s been together? Or the offensive coordinator and coaching staff?

Is it how well the team blocks out the distraction (“distraction” feels like an inadequate word, I know) of COVID-19 and deals with the logistical walls it’s created? Or is it how well the team’s players deal with the daily mental stress that they can either get it and get really sick; get it and have nothing happen; get it, not know it and pass it on to someone who may then get really sick or get it, pass it to a teammate and then see the whole league come to a grinding halt?

Do you know? I don’t know. As a result, there’s little jumbling in the Power Rankings. But three factors affecting every team right now that never are: opt-outs, the lack of offseason work and the approach of core, veteran leadership in an unprecedented time. Let’s get it. (Predraft ranking in parentheses).