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Patriots rocked as six players opt out over virus fear

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Los Angeles (AFP)

The New England Patriots' pre-season preparations were in turmoil on Tuesday as six players abruptly opted out of the 2020 campaign over coronavirus fears.

The wave of opt-outs included Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung, two three-time Super Bowl champions who have been pillars of the Patriots defense for several years.

Running back Brandon Bolden, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback Danny Vitale and reserve offensive lineman Najee Toran have also opted out.

Hightower, 30, told NFL Network his decision to opt out of the season was influenced by the birth of his first child on July 16.

"Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football -- especially the new addition to our family," Hightower said.

Hightower's mother also has Type 2 diabetes, putting her at a higher risk from COVID-19, NFL Network reported.

Hightower is known affectionately as "Mr February" by Patriots coach Bill Belichick for his habit of producing crucial plays during Super Bowl campaigns.

The 30-year-old's sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl in 2017 was pivotal in helping the Patriots score their comeback win.

Chung, 32, meanwhile, was a member of the Patriots teams that won the Super Bowls for the 2014, 2016 and 2018 seasons. Chung is also expecting a child with his wife.

Under an agreement brokered between the NFL and NFL Players Association, players who are deemed to be at high risk for COVID-19 can opt out of the season and be paid $350,000 with contracts rolling over.

Players not deemed to be at risk can opt out and receive $150,000.

The opt-outs come as the Patriots were already facing a major defensive rebuilding effort following the departure of free agents Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts.

Quarterback Tom Brady also left the club for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this year.

Concern over the potential impact of COVID-19 on the NFL has dominated the build-up to the new season, which kicks off on September 10.

Pre-season games due to start in August have been cancelled while players have repeatedly voiced concerns over safety protocols in place for the season.

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