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Patriots seemingly leaving the door open for veteran linebacker Dont’a Hightower to return

Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 23-21 preseason loss to Giants

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have to think roster reduction rather than increase at this time of the summer and with the first of three cutdown deadlines coming up. However, that does not mean they might not still be open to welcoming an old friend into the fold.

Dont’a Hightower, 32, remains unsigned after originally entering unrestricted free agency in mid-March. Despite his status, it appears the Patriots are not quite ready to move on from their long-time starting linebacker and team captain just yet — and if only from a symbolic perspective.

The team, after all, has neither re-issued his No. 54 jersey nor his prominently located locker yet. Both remain unoccupied, sparking speculation about a possible return in the future.

At the moment, however, nothing appears to be imminent.

The Patriots have handed the keys to the linebacker position over to a younger generation. Ja’Whaun Bentley has taken over as the group’s leader in Hightower’s stead, with Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson both projecting to play valuable roles as well this season. Cameron McGrone, Jahlani Tavai, Harvey Langi and Nate Wieland fill out the depth chart.

Does that mean a reunion between the club and the future Patriots Hall of Famer is off the table entirely? Not necessarily. Hightower has not yet made any public calls about whether or not he will continue his career, while the team itself does not appear to be categorically opposed to bringing him back into the fold either.

Considering his status as a 10-year veteran, he also would not need to participate in training camp or preseason to get up to speed. If anything, those would present additional opportunities for a player with a significant injury history to get hurt again.

At the end of the day, however, the facts are still the facts: Hightower is without a contract and the Patriots are preparing for the upcoming season with the talent they have available. That talent, by the way, showed some promise in training camp and during the preseason opener versus the New York Giants; the speed offered by McMillan and Wilson in particular stood out last Thursday night.

So, while it appears that New England is leaving the door open for a potential return, it might very well get shut close over the coming weeks.