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Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower returns to practice following opt-out

Related: Bill Belichick shares an update on Cam Newton’s hand injury: ‘I think he’ll be alright’

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots were back on the practice fields on Thursday for their ninth organized team activity. The session, which was open to reporters again, also saw the return of a player previously absent during voluntary workouts this spring: linebacker Dont’a Hightower is back.

A cornerstone of the New England defense ever since getting drafted in the first round back in 2012, Hightower missed the entire 2020 season after opting out — one of a league-high eight players that the Patriots lost to the Coronavirus opt-out clause. But while a majority of them will not be back this year, the team captain is.

Entering the final year of his contract, Hightower is again expected to play a prominent role in the team’s rebuilt defensive front seven. The most experienced linebacker on the roster, he will likely resume his role as the on-field signal caller and a leader in the locker room.

While it remains to be seen how quickly he will be back at full speed after a year on the sidelines, his presence alone should make the entire defense a better one.

“I’m excited to get him back in the building. He’s always a pleasure to have in the room,” inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said during a media conference call last week.

“When you look across just our defense and all the new guys that we have, just having his presence, having Devin McCourty’s presence, that stuff is definitely going to trickle down to the rest of the group. Not only talking about trickling down to the rookies, I’m talking about trickling down to the new players, the new free agents, the big-name free agents that come into this organization, just to really figure out how we handle business here. It’s always good to get him back.”

Together with tight end Matt LaCosse and running back Brandon Bolden, Hightower is one of just three former opt-outs still with the team.

Safety Patrick Chung has announced his retirement earlier this offseason, while offensive tackle Marcus Cannon was traded to Houston. Wide receiver Marqise Lee, offensive lineman Najee Toran and fullback Danny Vitale were all released.

Despite some speculation about his future, the writing was on the wall that Hightower would return. He did participate in virtual offseason meetings, and also returned to the Gillette Stadium facility recently.