With one month to go until they are scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s best and most experienced players.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 30
Size: 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2020 (2021 UFA)
What is his experience? Hightower arrived in the NFL when the Patriots traded up in the first round of the 2012 draft to select him with the 25th overall pick. Bringing the Alabama product on board paid immediate dividends not just because he scored a touchdown in his professional debut. Hightower also earned a starting role in his rookie year and has continuously been one of New England’s most valuable players and a team leader both on and off the field since the first day he stepped onto the field.
Over his eights seasons since joining the Patriots, he has appeared in 102 regular season games as well as 16 playoff contests. While he has not been able to play a full season since 2013 due to a multitude of injuries — only one of the season-ending, tough (a pectoral tear in 2017) — Hightower repeatedly proved himself a difference maker for the team: he has a combined 28.5 sacks on his résumé, has recovered six fumbles and intercepted a pair of passes, and scored two touchdowns and a safety.
His signature moments, however, came on the game’s biggest stage. The three-time team captain earned the nickname “Mr. February” due to his game-changing plays that helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls: he set up Malcolm Butler’s last-second interception by tackling Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line, forced a fumble during New England’s comeback against the Atlanta Falcons when he sacked Matt Ryan, and could very well have won MVP honors for his performance against the Los Angeles Rams.
What did his 2019 season look like? After registering two sacks during the Patriots’ win over the Rams in Super Bowl 53 and leading a defensive effort for the ages, Hightower resumed his usual role as one of the team’s defensive leaders — he was named a captain for the third time in his career in 2019 — and most reliable players. Lining up in numerous spots all over the front-seven and serving as the primary defensive on-field signal caller, the former first-round pick helped New England field the best scoring defense in the entire NFL.
Hightower was on the field for 15 regular season contests along the way — he missed the Week 4 meeting with the Buffalo Bills due to a shoulder injury — as well as the Patriots’ lone playoff game. All in all, he was on the field for a combined 783 of 1,070 possible defensive snaps (73.2%). While this playing time share ranked him only third among New England’s linebackers behind Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, Hightower was still the group’s leader as its elder statesman. He also was as important to the defensive operation as ever.
No matter if playing as a run or pass defender, the veteran was productive. As a pass rusher, for example, he ranked second on the team behind only Van Noy with 40.5 total quarterback pressures: he notched 5.5 sacks throughout the season and also added 18 hits as well as 17 hurries. When dropping back into coverage, meanwhile, he gave up 12 pass completions for 89 yards as well as a touchdown on 22 targets. In the running game, on the other hand, he finished the year with 45 tackles — among them four for a loss of yardage.
Hightower’s contributions did not stop there. In Week 8 against the Cleveland Browns, he also scooped up a fumble and returned it 24 yards for the second touchdown of his career and first since his rookie season. Furthermore, he also saw comparatively many snaps in the kicking game in 2019: serving primarily as a member of New England’s field goal and extra point block units as well as the team’s punt return teams, he was on the field for 93 of a possible 474 special teams snaps (19.6%).
Hightower’s performance during his eighth season in New England may not have helped the team defend its world championship, but it did allow the Patriots to field the league’s stingiest defense — all while he showed that he was still among the better linebackers in football as well as a core member of the organization. Hightower was voted to the second Pro Bowl of his career for his solid play, even though he decided not to participate in the exhibition contest.
What is his projected role? Hightower has played a prominent role in the Patriots’ defense ever since arriving in 2012. Serving as an off-the-ball linebacker who has also proven himself capable of lining up outside the formation as an edge defender, he is projected to again see considerable snaps in 2020 — especially with the aforementioned Van Noy and Collins having left the team in free agency. Hightower’s experience and communication skills will therefore become even more important, and he will play a key role in leading the young linebacker corps beyond his role as New England’s signal caller.
What is his special teams value? While primarily known for his contributions on defense, Hightower has played between 10 and 20 percent of the Patriots’ kicking game snaps every year of his career. 2020 could be more of the same, even though his defensive playing time might dictate how much the team opts to expose him to the wear and tear of special teams. If it decides to do so, however, he is expected to see regular action on field goal and extra point block teams as well as a rusher on punt return units.
Does he have positional versatility? Hightower’s versatility was one of his big selling points coming out of Alabama, and the Patriots have also never shied away from moving him all over the formation. In 2019, for example, he played mostly off the ball as an inside linebacker (488 snaps) but regularly also aligned on the line of scrimmage in more of an edge role as well (273 snaps). Accordingly, Hightower can be seen as a move linebacker option capable of playing numerous roles.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final season of the four-year deal he signed with the Patriots during the 2017 offseason, Hightower carries a salary cap hit of $12.45 million — the third highest on the team behind only Stephon Gilmore ($18.67 million) and Joe Thuney ($14.78 million). New England has numerous ways to bring this number down, though: a trade or release would clear $9.33 million off the books, while an extension would likely also reduce his cap impact significantly.
What is his roster outlook? The Patriots could opt to part ways with Hightower in order to improve their salary cap situation, but it seems more likely that the 30-year-old remains with the team for at least the final year of his contract. After all, he is too valuable as a starting linebacker and team captain to be let go after other core veterans — Tom Brady, Kyle Van Noy, Nate Ebner, among others — already departed the organization earlier this offseason. The expectation therefore is that Hightower will play his usual role in 2020: he will serve as the Patriots’ lead defensive communicator and one of their most important players.