The New England Patriots, who will return to work when they open their training camp next week, currently have 89 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with one New England’s most valuable defenders.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6’3, 260 lbs.
2018 review: After separate knee and pectoral injuries limited him to just five games during the 2017 season, Hightower bounced back in style in 2018 — proving that he is still one of the best and most important members of the Patriots’ defense and the team as a whole: as a reliable and versatile linebacker with a knack for the big play, the former first-round draft pick played a key role in helping New England win the Super Bowl.
On the year, Hightower appeared in all but one of the Patriots’ nineteen combined contests (he missed only week eight because of a minor knee injury) and saw regular on-field action: during his fifteen games in the regular season, he played 774 of a possible 979 defensive snaps (79.1%). In the playoffs, his role grew significantly as he added 177 snaps (of 188; 94.1%) over three games to his 2018 résumé.
Hightower was productive no matter how the coaching staff opted to use him. Just like running mate Kyle Van Noy, he lined up all over the formation: Hightower saw most of his action on the line of scrimmage in an ‘elephant’ role as an outside linebacker/defensive edge hybrid, but he also regularly played as a box/off-the-line defender as either a Mike (middle), Sam (strong side) or Will (weak side) linebacker.
On top of it all, Hightower also was used against the run, in coverage, and as a pass rusher either off the edge or in blitz packages. He also saw action in the kicking game and was on the field for 94 special teams snaps on the year (of 545; 17.2%) — making a major impact in week seven against the Chicago Bears: as a member of New England’s punt block team, Hightower got his hands on a kick; the football was subsequently scooped up by Van Noy and returned for a touchdown.
In general, Hightower was solid albeit at times during the regular season a bit inconsistent. However, he never looked overwhelmed by his numerous responsibilities that oftentimes changed on a play-to-play basis. In the ground game, for example, he registered 32 tackles with 4 of them being classified as ‘stuffs.’ As a pass rusher, meanwhile, he finished the year with 3.0 sacks, 8 additional quarterback hits and a combined 26 hurries. And in coverage, he surrendered 15 catches on 25 targets for 109 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.
That being said, Hightower’s value to the Patriots’ defense extends far beyond the stat sheet. He also is one of the unit’s leaders and has been chosen to call the defensive signals on the field and ensure that his ten teammates are lined up properly. He also, as noted above, has a knack for the big play — whether it is a fumble recovery on New England’s first defensive play of the year or a Super Bowl performance worthy of MVP recognition.
Speaking of the Super Bowl: on the game’s biggest stage, Hightower once again showed why head coach Bill Belichick refers to him as Mr. February. Against the Los Angeles Rams, he played 56 of 65 snaps (86.2%) and made plays all over the field — helping the Patriots destroy the Rams’ offensive rhythm and deliver a historic title game performance. When it was all said and done, Hightower had a pair of sacks, three quarterback hits and a pass breakup on his résumé. And, most importantly, a third championship.
2019 preview: Despite hitting the Patriots’ salary cap with $10.95 million in 2019 — the third highest number behind only Tom Brady and Devin McCourty — Hightower is again a lock to be on the roster this year. After all, he is one of the most experienced defenders on the team and a leader on the field and in the locker room. On top of it all, he also has proven his value as a playmaker and communicator within the unit.
As such, he should be expected to see considerable playing time again this year. While he may not see the same number of snaps as Kyle Van Noy — the Patriots have decided to manage his workload a bit in 2018 and the approach worked well — his role is still immensely important to the overall operation. Hightower will therefore play around 75-85% of New England’s defensive snaps again every single week.
If 2018 is any indication, it would not be a surprise if his usage increased during high-profile matchups and in the postseason. All in all, the new year projects to be more of the same for Hightower in terms of playing time. His usage, on the other hand, might change due to the uncertainties along the defensive edge: while he played around half of his snaps there last year, the free agency departure of Trey Flowers may lead the team to move him down to the line on a more regular basis.
Ultimately, however, Hightower will remain a difference maker for the Patriots defense no matter where he lines up.