The 2019 presence of Dont’a Hightower was felt in his 2020 absence.
But the expectation is that the linebacker, captain and green dot of defensive communication will again be on hand for the New England Patriots after opting out of last season due to Covid-19 concerns.
His former teammate and current position coach is looking forward to that comfort between the lines.
“Hightower’s a true professional,” Patriots inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo told reporters during his video conference on Thursday. “Obviously, opting out last year, hopefully we get the same Hightower we got in 2019, but we’ll see. We’ll see. I’ll say this about Hightower: I’m not worried about Hightower mentally. He’s one of the smartest players that I’ve been around and had the pleasure to coach. He knows all the Xs and Os. He’ll probably be a coach one day, honestly.”
Landing at No. 25 overall in the 2012 NFL draft, Hightower stands one All-Pro selection, two Pro Bowl selections and three Super Bowl rings into his Patriots tenure. At age 31, he also stands with a place on the franchise’s All-Decade team next to Mayo, 35, who joined New England’s staff in 2019.
“This guy, he’s very smart,” said Mayo. “The one thing you got to be concerned about with a guy like that is you’re coming off a year of not playing football. And so, training camp and this period right now, these are times right now where you really want to see him get back into football shape.”
Hightower’s most recent game arrived in the AFC wild card of January 2020. The Alabama product has been participating in virtual meetings this offseason, but was among 25 Patriots not spotted by reporters during the initial open session of voluntary organized team activities last week.
New England’s three-day mandatory minicamp begins June 15.
“In the summertime when we get back, you get back into that football shape. But I’m excited to get him back in the building,” Mayo said. “He’s always a pleasure to have in the room. And honestly, 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.”
The 7-9 New England defense of a season ago ranked last in Football Outsiders’ run DVOA and 26th in Pro Football Focus’ quarterback knockdown rate. The linebacker depth chart leaned on veteran safety Adrian Phillips in a box role and saw Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall all log time as starters.
“I’ll be honest, it was huge,” Mayo said of the 2020 campaign without Hightower. “It was huge. And I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, it’s like the times that I wasn’t hurt, I was kind of a coach on the field. So having a guy like Hightower — at the end of the day, you can call the play, but as soon as you cross the white lines, those guys are in charge. Any time you have a guy as smart as Hightower, who’s able to cross the white lines, you feel comfortable. Like, this guy is going to make the right decision nine times out of 10.”
Hightower has started 115 games, including playoffs, during his stay in New England. His most recent year on the field spanned 72 percent of the snaps to go with 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks and a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
“I mean, that’s a very comforting feeling,” added Mayo. “I’m not saying that we didn’t have that at times last year, but just getting it on a down-after-down-after-down basis is something that we look forward to having this year.”