The New England Patriots currently have 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on September 1 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the offseason, we take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots recapture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Today, the series continues with one of the Patriots’ team captains.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 28
Size: 6’3, 260 lbs.
2017 review: While he has been dealing with plenty of ailments during his first five years in the NFL, Dont’a Hightower never suffered one that forced the Patriots to place him on injured reserve – until 2017, his first year after signing a four-year, $35.5 million contract. The team captain tore his pectoral muscle in week seven against the Atlanta Falcons and shortly afterwards was shut down for the remainder of the season.
Naturally, his loss was a huge one for New England: Hightower is the team’s most talented, versatile and experienced linebacker and the one to wear the radio communication device in his helmet on game days, calling the defensive plays from the heart of the front seven. Beyond that, the Alabama product is also one of the emotional and vocal leaders of the squad, and among its most respected members.
But even before he was placed on injured reserve, Hightower was already dealing with injury: He missed weeks two and three because of a knee issue. He looked like his old reliable self when he returned in week four, and played a key role in helping the Patriots’ much-maligned defense finally build some momentum heading towards the second half of the season afterwards – until injuring his shoulder that is.
Because of the torn pec muscle and previous knee injury, Hightower played only five games in 2017. He was on the field for 70.5% of defensive snaps during those games (237 of 336) and registered 2.0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and two run stuffs to go along with 14 tackles – unspectacular numbers when compared to years past. The biggest disappointment, however, was that Hightower was unable to help his teammates in the playoffs. They certainly could have used him.
2018 preview: Hightower was back on the Patriots’ practice fields during organized team activities and minicamp, and appeared to be back at full strength during the Patriots’ first training camp practice yesterday. This is an encouraging outlook for both the player and a Patriots team that only added two late-round picks as additional linebacker depth this offseason.
New England certainly expects its star linebacker to return to his old form after spending most of 2017 sidelined – which would be a tremendous boost to the defense and have a trickle-down effect on every other linebacker: Kyle Van Noy would no longer have to be the top option and could be used more matchup-specifically; Elandon Roberts and Marquis Flowers would again serve as rotational role players.
All in all, getting Hightower back is big for the Patriots. And if the 28-year old can return to the Pro Bowl-caliber level he showed at times over the last few seasons, he instantly makes New England’s defense better – and first-year de-facto coordinator Brian Flores’ job a lot easier.