BOSTON (CBS) — Three-time Patriots defensive captain Dont’a Hightower opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Now 31 years old, the middle linebacker is expected by most to step right back into the heart of the Patriots’ defense.

But might he be opting out for good?

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That much we don’t know, but we all apparently missed a fairly large nugget in Peter King’s weekly column on Monday.

“Will Dont’a Hightower resume his strong career in the middle of the Pats’ D, or will Belichick permanently opt him out?” King wondered aloud.

Did King come up with this out of thin air? Or was this some informed speculation?

Either way, Scott Zolak and Marc Bertrand picked up on the nugget, albeit a couple of days late on Wednesday.

“I don’t believe that was a major topic on our radar, but when Peter King writes that, you know how he is, he drops a little knowledge bomb on you without you even knowing it,” Marc Bertrand said on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Zolak & Bertrand then played audio from the “Patriots Unfiltered” podcast involving Paul Perillo — who works for the Patriots-owned media outlet — speculating about Hightower as well.

“It was another example of is this guy gonna be around?” Perillo said of King’s speculation. “I think the Patriots are looking at him to give some money back.”

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Hightower is due a base salary of $8 million in 2021, with bonuses that could add another $1.125 million, and he carries a $12.397 million cap hit, according to Over The Cap. If the Patriots cut him, he’ll cost just $2.5 million in dead money, thus clearing almost $10 million off the salary cap.

Hightower is a valuable veteran who’s won three Super Bowls with the team, and there’s not really any Pro Bowl-caliber replacements in line to replace him if he’s not around in 2021. But depending on what the Patriots want to do, reworking — or getting rid of — that deal could free them up to make a move or two.

With many Patriots players in Foxboro for OTAs, Hightower hasn’t been seen in any of the photos posted by the team. He got married over the weekend and shared a photo on Instagram:

For what it’s worth, four of the eight Patriots who opted out last year are no longer on the team. Patrick Chung retired, Marcus Cannon was traded to Houston, and Marqise Lee and Najee Toran were released. Running back/special teamer Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale and tight end Matt LaCosse are partaking in OTAs this week, leaving just Hightower as the only unresolved player from the opt-out list.

To close out the conversation on Wednesday, Zolak & Bertrand welcomed on someone who only goes by “The Spike King.” He reported in November that Hightower was expected to retire instead of return to the Patriots in 2021.

“It goes back to when they lost the playoff game to the Titans. And what I was told at that time was Dont’a Hightower lost the love of the game of football. He was going to play the last year of his contract [in 2020] and that was it,” he told Zolak & Bertrand. “Then COVID came, then his son came, then he opted out, so things started trickling. And then in November when I put it out there, at that time in November, I was told he didn’t want to come back, he didn’t want to play.”

Dont’a Hightower ) before an AFC Wild Card game between the New England Patriots and the Tennessee Titans on January 4, 2020. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Whether the story ends in retirement, a restructure, a trade, or a release, it sort of sounds like something has to happen between the Patriots and Hightower at some point soon.

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UPDATE: Bill Belichick spoke about Hightower’s situation on Thursday morning.

CBSBoston.com Staff