FOXBORO, Mass. — Dont’a Hightower‘s rookie year with the Patriots couldn’t have gone much better.
The linebacker was a Week 1 starter and was trusted to assume multiple roles with the Patriots at strong-side linebacker, stopping the run, dropping back in coverage, blitzing off the edge and playing in sub packages. But the Alabama product is still trying to step up his game on the field and in the locker room as he becomes a veteran.
“I think it was more or less just trying to fit in and trying to do my role,” Hightower said about this rookie year. “Not trying to be the leader of the team or trying to make sure everyone is doing everything right. … So, I’m trying to graduate a little bit more than that, trying to become a little bit more of a leader. Not necessarily the Vince Wilforks or the [Jerod] Mayos, but just one those guys that everybody looks up to and sees their work ethic.”
Hightower was given a shot on third down in sub packages, but he shared the role with middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. If Hightower hopes to become an every-down player, he knows some of the things he’ll need to work on during mini camp and training camp.
“Just to be a better ball player,” Hightower said. “Let my instincts flow a little bit better. Again, knowing the playbook a little bit better, so I can [play] a little more fluently. You know, helping to disguise the play a little bit better. Just trying to get out there and bring what I brought from college back here. Again, the biggest thing for me is to just let my instincts play for me.”
Hightower already showed plus instincts as a rookie, but he’ll have some competition for playing time this year after the Patriots drafted Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins played safety early in his college career, so snaps in nickel packages may start to become split between Hightower, Spikes and the rookie.
Hightower is happy to help rookies like Collins since he’s just one year removed from being a first-year player. The linebacker may not be ready to be Tom Brady or Wilfork yet, but he’ll help out where he can.
“It feels pretty good you know, not having to go get the water bottles or pick the equipment up or do little things like that,” Hightower said. “It also feels good to have some of the younger guys look up to me even though I’m a second-year guy. I kind of know the ropes a little bit better. But it feels pretty good to know I’m in my second year.”
Many young players and veterans alike seem to have trouble with the Patriots’ intricate playbook, but Hightower adapted well coming out of Alabama. He said that an extra year in the Patriots system will help him, though.
We haven’t really jumped all the way into that right now,” Hightower said of the defensive playbook. “But as far as watching film I feel a lot more comfortable now. It’s a lot easier now with the different terminology and different schemes. This year I feel a lot more comfortable. It happened in college and hopefully it’s going to happen this year where I’m a little bit more fluent on the field. Let my instincts flow and just learn the playbook a lot better.”
The Patriots did the unthinkable last season by not only keeping their first-round selections, but trading up in the opening round of the draft. They acquired Chandler Jones and Hightower for their efforts and with an extra year under both players’ belts, the Patriots defense should improve this season.
Hightower is ready to work, and if his influence rubs off, the rookies will be too. Hightower has already been spending time with Collins and says the rookie will have no trouble fitting in.