Dont’a Hightower was a Pro Bowler in 2019. If he performs at or near that level this season, he’ll provide a massive boost to the New England Patriots’ defense.
But will the veteran linebacker return as the same player after opting out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19 concerns? Even his position coach isn’t sure.
“I’ll say this: Hightower’s a true professional,” said Jerod Mayo, who played alongside Hightower before becoming New England’s inside linebackers coach in 2019. “Obviously, opting out last year, hopefully we get the same Hightower we got in 2019, but we’ll see.”
Mayo isn’t concerned about Hightower — a longtime team captain and New England’s primary defensive communicator — losing his mental edge. But he can’t say where the 31-year-old will be physically after a year away from football.
Hightower has not appeared in a game since Jan. 5, 2020, when the Patriots lost to the Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.
“I will this about Hightower: I’m not worried about Hightower mentally,” Mayo said. “He’s one of the smartest players that I’ve been around, had the pleasure to coach. He knows all the X’s and O’s. He’ll probably be a coach one day, honestly. This guy, he’s very smart.
“The one thing you’ve got to be concerned about with a guy like that, you know, you’re coming off a year of not playing football. Training camp and this period right now, these are times right now where you really want to see them get back into football shape. Then in the summertime when we get back, get back into that football shape. But I’m excited to get him back in the building. He’s always a pleasure to have in the room.”
Hightower was the most impactful of New England’s eight opt-outs. Without him, the 2020 Patriots — who’d already lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts in free agency — were forced to rely on players like Ja’Whaun Bentley, Terez Hall, Josh Uche and safety Adrian Phillips to fill their inside linebacker void.
The Patriots’ defense regressed sharply, dropping from first to 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and eighth to 32nd in run defense DVOA.
“I’ll be honest, it was huge,” Mayo said of Hightower’s absence. “It was kind of like — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn here — but it’s like, the times that I wasn’t hurt, I was kind of like a coach on the field. So having a guy like Hightower, at the end of the day, you can call the play, but as soon as you cross the white lines, those guys are in charge. Anytime you have a guy as smart as Hightower that’s able to cross the white line, you feel comfortable, like this guy is going to make the right decision nine times out of 10. That’s a very comforting feeling.
“I’m not saying that we didn’t have that at times last year. But just getting it on a down-after-down basis is something we look forward to having this year.”
New England overhauled its defensive front seven this offseason, bringing back the versatile Van Noy; signing edge rusher Matt Judon, inside linebacker Raekwon McMillan and D-linemen Davon Godchaux, Henry Anderson and Montravius Adams; and drafting D-tackle Christian Barmore (Round 2) and edge rusher Ronnie Perkins (Round 3).
“Honestly, when you look across the defense and all the new guys that we have, just having (Hightower’s) presence, having Devin McCourty’s presence, that stuff is definitely going to trickle down to the rest of the group,” Mayo said. “Not only talking about trickling down to the rookies. I’m talking about trickling down to the new players, the new free agents, the big-name free agents that come into this organization, just to really figure out how we handle business here. So it’s always good to get him back.”
Hightower, who has participated in virtual offseason meetings, was one of many Patriots veterans who did not attend the team’s first open organized team activities practice last Thursday. These sessions are voluntary for players. New England’s first mandatory practice is scheduled for June 15, when its three-day minicamp kicks off.