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Dont’a Hightower has indeed been ‘a pleasant surprise’ for the Patriots defense this season

Related: Patriots on a ‘wait-and-see program’ with running backs Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson

NFL: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After spending a year on the Coronavirus opt-out list, an aura of uncertainty surrounded Dont’a Hightower heading into the 2021 season. While well-established as one of the best linebackers in football and a vital part of the New England Patriots defense, there was no telling whether or how quickly he would return to his old form.

In fact, there were even questions about him returning at all. Hightower answered those emphatically over the summer, saying that the opt-out “was literally just for the season.”

As far as his on-field performance was concerned, though, the questions remained even as the season had already begun. Early on, just like the Patriots as a whole, the 31-year-old appeared to not have found his groove just yet.

As the year went on, however, he returned to become the powerful force at the heart of the New England defense that he had been ever since his arrival in 2012. The very fact that that happened came as a “pleasant surprise” to his position coach.

“He’s still the physical player, the good pass rusher and the guy who was able to do a bunch of different things. It’s a pleasant surprise to see him do these things again, after taking a year off,” said Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo during a media conference call earlier this week.” He’s done great for us. He’s good in the classroom. He’s good on the field. Smart player and a great leader for this team.”

What exactly did Mayo mean with the phrase about Hightower being a surprise, though?

“You just don’t know,” he said. “The unknown sometimes is the scary part. You hope that he’s the same guy you saw in 2019. You take a year off, and you just don’t know.”

Since coming back from his Covid-19-related opt-out, Hightower has appeared in eight of New England’s nine games (he missed the Week 7 win versus the New York Jets with an elbow injury). Playing around two-thirds of the team’s defensive snaps, he still fills the same role he already held for the club before sitting out the 2020 campaign.

Hightower continues to be a key communicator on defense and, as a team captain, a leader in the locker room. He also is being moved around the formation on a regular basis — aligning both on and off the ball — and has played a big role in helping the Patriots run defense bounce back after a dismal last season.

The tape also shows just how well he is playing at the moment:

Hightower very much looks like the player he was before his opt out. Combining elite play recognition with power, speed and the aforementioned versatility, he therefore is capable of impacting the Patriots’ defensive success even in his 30s and with a year spent with his family rather than his teammates.

Despite all that, his detractors will point to the numbers to claim he may have lost a step. However, the stat-sheet does not properly reflect his impact or role.

Hightower has notched 28 tackles and not registered any sacks or turnovers at this point, yes. He is operating largely out of the spotlight, though, helping set others and in turn the whole unit up for success.

Hightower does not see any problem with that as he explained last month.

“I’ve never been a numbers guy,” he 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.”

At this point, he is doing just that a very high level.