After 523 days, Dont’a Hightower was back in a New England Patriots uniform last week. The veteran linebacker, who had opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus, returned to practice for the final two days of organized team activities as well as the team’s mandatory minicamp.
On Monday, the first day of said minicamp, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spoke about Hightower’s return. And it seems as if the team captain has not skipped a beat.
“High’s worked right in very quickly. He’s obviously a smart player with a lot of experience and has a lot of leadership force on the team,” Belichick said during a media conference call. “But we’re not really in an evaluation mode here, so we’ll see how all that goes for everybody when we get to that point.”
One of a league-high eight Patriots to exercise the opt-out clause last summer, Hightower’s absence was felt quite a bit in 2020. With him not pulling the strings at the heart of the defense, the unit struggled with consistency one year after finishing first in the league in scoring.
While it remains to be seen how quickly he will be back at full speed after a year on the sidelines, Belichick’s statements are encouraging. And he is not the only coach to feel good about getting the 31-year-old back into the fold.
“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 earlier this month.
“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.”
Hightower is one of just three former opt-outs to return to the Patriots this season. Tight end Matt LaCosse and running back/special teamer Brandon Bolden have also returned, with the latter making his offseason debut on Monday.
The other five players that opted out, meanwhile, will not be back with the club in 2021. Safety Patrick Chung 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 that he might join this group as well, Hightower returned to the practice fields last week.
“It’s good to have all the players that we have and, yeah, it was good to see High,” Belichick said.
Hightower will play a crucial role for the Patriots this upcoming season. Not only is he expected to resume his role as a team captain and the defensive on-field signal caller, he also gives the team some stability after rebuilding its linebacker group during the offseason: Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy and Raekwon McMillan were added in free agency while Ronnie Perkins was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Together with Hightower and returnees such as Josh Uche and Chase Winovich, the group will attempt to bounce back after a sub-par 2020 season. Having all hands on deck — including Hightower’s — will be crucial.