When you ask a New England Patriots coach to describe linebacker Dont’a Hightower, “smart” usually is one of the first words out of his mouth.
“He?s really smart,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “He?s very football smart. He has got very good instincts in all phases of the game, in the running game, in the passing game, as a pass rusher. He does all of those things well, but he (also) understands them well.”
A fifth-year pro in his first season as a Patriots captain, Hightower is the quarterback of New England’s defense. He calls the defensive signals — a skill he honed in recent years while filling in for the injured Jerod Mayo — and is in constant communication with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Patricia’s praise for the 26-year-old following the Patriots’ Week 1 win over the Arizona Cardinals was just as high as Belichick’s.
“Certainly as a young player, when we got Dont?a, (he was) a very smart, intelligent guy that understands a lot about conceptual football,” Patricia said Tuesday. “He can talk football and really try to visualize it and see it and you can go through a lot of different situations with him. It?s very natural for him to control and handle a lot of things and a lot of different responsibilities, a lot of different positions that he does for us. It?s just part of the progression for him as a young player improving and stepping into a role where he?s honestly just very quite natural.
“Dont?a just does an excellent job of leading when he?s out there, so he?s certainly someone I rely on a lot. We talk a lot about the scheme. and we talk a lot about what we?re trying to get done. He?s a guy for me that is out on the field but is really the voice that?s coming through of what we?re trying to get done. A really smart player. Very tough, physical, all the ability, but just a really smart football player.”
Hightower, who finished with one tackle and one quarterback hit against Arizona, is one of several high-profile Patriots players set to hit free agency in 2017 — a list that also includes linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images