Intertwined careers of Hightower and Upshaw cross paths again in Super Bowl

Intertwined careers of Hightower and Upshaw cross paths again in Super Bowl

FOXBORO -- There’s an episode of “The Office” in which Phyllis says she and coworker Stanley are close with one another, to which Stanley cruelly and hilariously responds, “We sit close.”

Proximity-wise, two of Super Bowl LI’s participants definitely sat close for a number of years. From 2008 through 2011, Dont’a Hightower played inside linebacker in Nick Saban’s defense at Alabama; Courtney Upshaw played next to him at outside linebacker. They roomed together. They won a BCS National Championship together. 

When the two entered the NFL draft in 2012, they were once again close. Mike Mayock ranked Hightower the 15th-best player in the draft and Upshaw was 23rd. The Pats drafted Hightower 25th overall; Upshaw went 35th to Baltimore. 

So Hightower and Upshaw, the latter of whom is now in his first season with the Falcons, have always been close, whether positionally or in ranking. They’ve been through a ton together. As for the other kind of close? 

“That’s my ace,” Hightower said Thursday at Gillette Stadium.

Coming into Alabama as a true freshman from Lewisburg, Tenn., Hightower was one of only four defensive players from Tennessee on a roster dominated by Alabama natives, Upshaw among them. He says he became fast friends with Upshaw, a relationship that translated into ample success on the field. 

“[He’s] one of the few guys that we actually got real close to, coming in together,” Hightower said. “Coming to Alabama, there was only like three guys from Tennessee that actually went out of state or whatever. 

“Me and Upshaw got pretty close. We talked the other day, or whatever. We’re still pretty close.“

Then there’s the aspect of them getting in each other’s way. Hightower and Upshaw’s teams have met twice in the postseason since they reached the NFL, with each beating the other once en route to a Super Bowl; Upshaw’s Ravens over Hightower’s Patriots in the 2012 season and the Pats over the Ravens in the 2014 season. 

On Feb. 5, they’ll face each other in the Super Bowl for the first time. Perhaps they could have played in this game as teammates, as Upshaw received interest from the Pats as a free agent before taking a one-year deal with the Falcons, where he moved from outside linebacker to the defensive line. 

Hell, the Patriots needed an edge rusher in that 2012 draft, so they in theory could have made Upshaw the player they coveted rather than Hightower, or even drafted them both. Bill Belichick chose right, moving up to take Chandler Jones and then trading up again for Hightower. 

So much of what Hightower accomplished in his football career has been tied to Upshaw and vice versa. Their play together won Alabama a championship and at least on some level raised one another’s draft stock. While Upshaw hasn’t become the star that Hightower is, they’ve both achieved success on their own. 

Now comes the latest chance to beat one another. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

“There’s going to be some [word-that-Tom-Brady-must-be-teaching-his-teammates]-talking after the game, whether it’s win or lose, but definitely, it feels good to see [him],” Hightower said.

“We literally grew up together as far as the football aspect of it goes. It will be fun. It will be good. Hopefully I’m on the right side of it, but it’s always good to have another guy on the opposite end just to talk a little smack during the week.” 

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

File photo

Reports: Patriots among NFL teams taking a look at Manziel

Johnny Manziel said 10 days ago, "I'd go to New England in a heartbeat," when asked about the Patriots as a potential landing spot.

That seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but they're taking a look at him...along with 12 other NFL teams, according to ESPN's Eric Williams. 

Tom Brady's current backup Brian Hoyer is, like Manziel, an ex-Cleveland Browns quarterback. Manziel would again be competing with Hoyer for the Pats' No. 2 job should New England take a chance on "Johnny Football", the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, who's been out of football the past two years because of substance abuse and emotional problems.

FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman had it at 12 teams watching Manziel work out at the University of San Diego and said the Patriots gave Manziel a weigh-in.


Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

Patriots re-sign offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle

The Patriots have agreed to re-sign offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, his agent Scott Casterline confirmed on Twitter.  Waddle hit unrestricted free agency when the new league year began and made a visit to the Cowboys earlier this week. In the end, though, he chose to return to the team that claimed him off of waivers at the end of the 2015 season.

Waddle, who turns 27 in July, appeared in 12 games last season for the Patriots. He was the first right tackle the Patriots turned to when Marcus Cannon suffered an ankle injury mid-season against the Chargers. He ended up playing 51 snaps against the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram without allowing a sack. He then started the next three games against the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins and held star rushers Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Cameron Wake -- all of whom rush primarily off of the offensive right -- without a sack. 

Injuries forced Waddle (380 snaps on the season) to split the right tackle position with Cameron Fleming (543 snaps), but he was the primary backup when healthy. Waddle started the Divisional Round playoff game against the Titans but suffered a knee injury and was removed for Fleming. 

Both Fleming and Waddle visited the Cowboys this week, and the fact that Waddle has re-signed with the Patriots may impact Fleming's decision moving forward. 

The Patriots went to great lengths to build tackle depth last season, and adding Waddle to the roster helps them retain some of that depth after losing their left tackle, Nate Solder, to the Giants via free agency. Waddle could be an option on the left side, but the vast majority of his work since entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2013 has been on the right side. 

The Patriots now have Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Cole Croston, Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks on their depth chart at tackle. Croston, Garcia and Jelks are all headed into their second years as pros. Croston remained on the 53-man roster all season -- an indication that the Patriots liked him enough not to expose him to the waiver system -- but did not see meaningful snaps. Garcia and Jelks both missed the entirety of the 2017 season on reserve lists. 

Once the Patriots lost Solder to the Giants, it seemed to be of paramount importance that the Patriots re-sign either Waddle or Fleming. Behind Cannon, there were simply too many question marks not to have one return. The Patriots could opt to draft a tackle, but this is considered an average year at that position in that there are few ready-made NFL players and several developmental types.

Before the Super Bowl last season, I asked offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia how the team was able to manage offensively with backups at right tackle for much of the season. 

"It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players," Scarnecchia said. "They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position."

Asked about the aspects of the game the Patriots worked on with both Waddle and Fleming last year, Scarnecchia said, "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."