BOSTON (CBS) — Dont’a Hightower opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns. This year, he has not yet shown up for voluntary OTAs.

That combination of decisions — combined with various levels of speculating and reporting — has risen some eyebrows in the region as to whether or not the defensive stalwart will return at all to the middle of the Patriots’ defense.

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On Thursday, head coach Bill Belichick was asked if he has “any sense” as whether or not Hightower will return to the Patriots.

“Yeah, well, all the players that are on the roster and not here, then my expectations are that they intend to play,” Belichick said. “But we know things can change, and that’s always a part of life and a part of football. So we’ll take it as it comes.”

Belichick spoke to the hard work being put in by players who have been in Foxboro for the entirety of the offseason period, but also noted that players who entered later than others have arrived in good condition as well. Rounding out his answer, the coach seemed to indicate that some players simply have reasons for not being in attendance at the voluntary OTA sessions.

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“Each guy has his own circumstances, so I’m not going to get into that,” Belichick said. “But we’ll see how it goes on some of the players that aren’t here — which there’s a number of them that aren’t. But we’ll welcome them when they get here, it’s all voluntary. So when they’re here, they’re here, and we’ll work with them.”

In Hightower’s case, he and his new wife shared on Instagram that he got married over the weekend in Nashville, where he lives.

The Patriots won’t be holding any mandatory sessions until June 14, when mandatory minicamp begins. Seemingly, if something is to develop one way or another with Hightower, it would happen before that date.

Interestingly, of the eight Patriots who opted out of last season during COVID, only two — Brandon Bolden and Matt LaCosse — are actively participating in OTAs this week. Patrick Chung retired, Marcus Cannon was traded to Houston, Marqise Lee and Najee Toran were released earlier in the offseason, and Danny Vitale was released on Thursday. Hightower’s contract runs through the 2021 season, but he’s yet to make his way to Foxboro this spring.

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Hightower, 31, is a three-time Super Bowl champion, a three-time team captain, and a two-time Pro Bowler. He played in 15 games in 2019, when the Patriots led the league in defense, recording 71 tackles with 5.5 sacks, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and a blocked punt that was returned by Kyle Van Noy for a touchdown.

CBSBoston.com Staff