FOXBORO, Mass. — Dont’a Hightower was already one of the most versatile players on the Patriots’ defense last season. This year, with added responsibility and a better understanding of the playbook, the second-year player is giving the New England defense even more flexibility.
Hightower has lined up at strong-side linebacker and middle linebacker in the 4-3. He’s also played inside and outside in the 3-4. Early in training camp, the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder was even in on some one-on-one pass rushing drills.
“That’s one thing I feel like that sets me apart from other guys,” Hightower said about his versatility. “Aside from being my size and me being able to move as well as I do, versatility — being able to play outside, playing the defensive end or playing the mike backer. Being able to cover some of the other guys I wouldn’t be expected to. I try to use all of that to my advantage.”
Bill Belichick praised Hightower for his versatility during the head coach’s afternoon press conference before practice. Belichick also said Hightower understands the Patriots’ defense even better than he did last year, when he came in as a first-year starter.
“He had a good spring,” Belichick said. “He’s had a real good camp. Versatile player, he’s a smart guy, I think he had good understanding of what we did last year but it’s certainly better this year. He has a lot more experience. We’ve asked him to do more. He has more responsibilities and he handles those with very few errors. Dependable player that’s adjustable and has a lot of versatility — big guy that can run and do a lot of different things for us.”
Hightower echoed Belichick’s thoughts that he has a better understanding of the system and that there’s some added responsibility this year.
“Yeah,” Hightower said with a laugh when asked about whether he noticed some added responsibility. ”Yeah, a lot more than usual. But it’s something I’m ready for. Again, last year, I wasn’t as comfortable as I wanted to be. This year, I know the playbook about 20 times better. It’s just more fluent, more natural now. I’m ready for it.”
Hightower has been playing with the first- and second-team defense in preseason games. It looked like Belichick was giving him some added reps in the nickel defense and at middle linebacker with the twos.
Those added reps, plus an extra year in the league, have made Hightower a lot more comfortable. He said he was second-guessing himself a lot last year, whereas now he can play off his instincts.
“It’s comfortability,” Hightower said. “I’m a lot more comfortable now. Whenever you’re comfortable, you’re able to play the way you want to. You’re not necessarily worrying about making checks or making sure everybody’s in the right spot. Now, once I see the formation, I make the calls, it’s set and now I’m just playing ball.”
Hightower had a solid first season in the league, being installed in the starting lineup right away. He missed two games with an injury but was solid in his run stopping and pass rushing ability. With Brandon Spikes‘ contract running out after this year, Hightower could increase his role this season.
The strong-side linebacker didn’t play in the nickel defense as frequently as Spikes, which limited his pass rushing opportunities. If the Patriots plan on running more 3-4 looks this year, though, Spikes will be rushing off the edge as an outside linebacker. Given the skills he showed as a pass rusher in college at Alabama, he could be dangerous at that position.