With the offseason workout program in the books and training camp being kicked off later this month, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 31
Size: 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Hightower arrived in the NFL when the Patriots traded up in the first round of the 2012 draft to select him with the 25th overall pick. Bringing the Alabama product on board paid immediate dividends not just because he scored a touchdown in his professional debut. Hightower also earned a starting role in his rookie year and has continuously been one of New England’s most valuable players and a team leader both on and off the field since the first day he stepped onto the field.
Over his eights seasons since joining the Patriots, he has appeared in 102 regular season games as well as 16 playoff contests. While he has not been able to play a full season since 2013 due to a multitude of injuries — only one of them season-ending, tough (a pectoral tear in 2017) — and opted out in 2020, Hightower repeatedly proved himself a difference maker for the team: he has a combined 28.5 sacks on his résumé, has recovered six fumbles and intercepted a pair of passes, and scored two touchdowns and a safety.
His signature moments, however, came on the game’s biggest stage. The three-time team captain earned the nickname “Mr. February” due to his game-changing plays that helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls: he set up Malcolm Butler’s last-second interception by tackling Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line, forced a fumble during New England’s comeback against the Atlanta Falcons when he sacked Matt Ryan, and could very well have won MVP honors for his performance against the Los Angeles Rams.
What did his 2020 season look like? With fellow veteran linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts all having left New England in free agency, Hightower was projected as a crucial member of the team’s 2020 defense. The elder statesman in the room, he was one of only two returning linebackers and as such expected to play a prominent role leading the young group into the future. The Coronavirus pandemic, however, changed this outlook and led to him taking a different path.
Hightower was among a league-high eight Patriots to exercise his right to opt out of the season due to concerns about the virus. He subsequently sat out the entire year. A voluntary opt-out whose decision was made with his family in mind — his firstborn, Grayson Dash, was not even two weeks old at that point — Hightower received a $150,000 stipend and saw his contract toll into 2021. The long-time team captain therefore remained signed instead of becoming an unrestricted free agent following the 2020 campaign.
What is his projected role? Hightower has played a prominent role in the Patriots’ defense ever since arriving in 2012. Serving as an off-the-ball linebacker who has also proven himself capable of lining up outside the formation as an edge defender, he is projected to resume a similar role coming off his opt-out and to see considerable snaps again in 2020. Hightower’s experience and communication skills will be as important as ever, and he will play a key role in leading a rebuilt linebacker corps in his role as New England’s on-field signal caller and one of its team captains.
What is his special teams value? While primarily known for his contributions on defense, Hightower has played between 10 and 20 percent of the Patriots’ kicking game snaps every year of his career. 2021 could be more of the same, even though his defensive playing time might dictate how much the team opts to expose him to the wear and tear of special teams. If it decides to do so, however, he is expected to see somewhat regular action on field goal and extra point block teams as well as a rusher on punt return units.
Does he have positional versatility? Hightower’s versatility was one of his big selling points coming out of Alabama, and the Patriots have also never shied away from moving him all over the formation. During his last season with the club in 2019, for example, he played mostly off the ball as an inside linebacker (488 snaps) but regularly aligned on the line of scrimmage in more of an edge role as well (273 snaps). Accordingly, Hightower can be seen as a move option capable of playing numerous roles within the defensive front seven.
What is his salary cap situation? With his contract tolling into 2021, Hightower is now in the same position he was in before his opt-out last summer: he is entering the final season of the four-year deal he signed with the Patriots in 2017. Hightower carries a salary cap hit of $12.4 million — the second highest on the team behind only Stephon Gilmore’ $16.3 million — that consists of his salary ($8 million), singing bonus proration ($2.5 million), incentives ($1.1 million) and roster bonuses ($735,294).
What is his roster outlook? Hightower’s opt-out was a big blow to the Patriots’ reshaped defense in 2020, and his return will naturally be big for the unit. While the team bolstered the linebacker group through the offseason, adding a player of his experience, versatility, leadership and playmaking skills is massively valuable. While it remains to be seen what he looks like at full speed coming off a year on the sidelines, Hightower resuming his role as the leader of the New England defense is the expected outcome.