The New England Patriots rebuilt their defensive front seven this offseason, investing considerable resources both in free agency and the draft. One of the biggest additions to the group did not come down either path, though, but rather off the Coronavirus opt-out list.
Dont’a Hightower elected to sit out the 2020 season to protect his family from Covid-19; his son Grayson Dash was born last summer at the height of pandemic uncertainty. The long-time team captain being among a league-high eight opt-outs was undoubtably a major development for a team and defense in transition. The Patriots failed to properly replace his contributions all year long.
Now, Hightower is back. He also is returning to form, which is good news for the New England defense.
His Week 5 game against the Houston Texans was the best of his season, even though his stats — five tackles, third most on the team — may not reflect it. After all, Hightower’s value to the Patriots extends far beyond the numbers, something linebackers coach Jerod Mayo pointed out earlier this week.
“If you were to just look at the stat sheet, it doesn’t really pop off the stat sheet, ‘Wow, this guy had a great game,’” Mayo said during a media conference call on Tuesday. “But If you were to watch the film, and see his overall physicality, I would say it was by far his best game.”
Playing roughly two thirds of New England’s defensive snaps in Houston, Hightower served his usual role as a do-it-all linebacker and a key communicator within the unit. Even though he did not wear the radio communication device in his helmet — safety Devin McCourty did — he continued to play an important part on a defense that had a rough start but eventually settled down in the second half.
Along the way, Hightower did what he always does: seemingly everything.
On Wednesday, he spoke in greater detail about his role on defense and that it cannot be explained through statistics alone.
“I’ve never been a numbers guy,” Hightower said. “I’m going to do whatever I need to do for the team. Whether it’s knocking the s--t out of linemen, if I’m supposed to get eight or ten tackles, or have eight sacks, then that’s what I plan on doing. But I’m just going to do my job. I’m the trash man. I just play football.”
What exactly does he mean by that, though?
“Just doing the hard stuff,” he said. “I just want to do my job and win.”
Hightower has done a lot of winning in his career, having an active hand in three of the organization’s Super Bowl victories. While his performance in those big games stand out and have earned him the nickname “Mr. February” — he made game-changing plays in all three Super Bowls — there is no telling how the veteran will be used in any given situation.
Head coach Bill Belichick said so himself on Wednesday. Praising Hightower’s versatility and intelligence, he noted that the he can do multiple things at a high level.
“He’s so versatile that he’s a guy that you can ask to do a lot of things and he can handle a lot of different things; not necessarily the same every week but what the priorities are — pass rush, run game, end of the line, off the ball, handle the fronts, make coverage adjustments,” Belichick said.
“He’s a smart player. He has such a good grasp of the overall defense, and the offense that we’re playing; how to use the tools that we have and apply them to the situations that come up. He does a lot of things for us. He’s just really good.”
Fellow linebacker Matthew Judon — one of the big offseason investments mentioned above — echoed Belichick’s remarks, and also showered the 31-year-old with praise.
“If he calls himself that, he calls himself that,” Judon said about Hightower’s “trash man” label. “But I think High is a really good player and he does do a lot of dirty jobs for us. He makes us look good. If he wants to be the junk man, he’s the junk man.”