Leading up to the first day of training camp, we’re going to look at the most important Patriots, counting down from 10 to 1.
6. DONT'A HIGHTOWER
Why? For starters, Hightower is one of the toughest players on the team. He played with one shoulder for the final month of the season; he was hampered in the other by a nasty torn labrum. That hurts for a normal guy, but for an inside linebacker in the NFL?? Shot or no shot, the pain had to be excruciating at times. Yet Hightower’s performance didn’t suffer much, and his tackle of Marshawn Lynch down by the goal line came one play before Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception. On top of that, Hightower’s instincts and overall understanding of the defensive scheme are second to none on the roster. He’s all that, and a bag of chips.
Previous Performance: Hightower was the Patriots' most consistent player last season. Not just on the defensive side of the ball, but on the entire roster. He blossomed from being a run-stopper into being a complete backer, no longer a primary target of opposing passers as they dropped back into coverage. The former Alabama star also got his wish to rush the passer more, and proved worthy: 8 sacks, 9 QB hits and 20 pressures. Hightower and Jamie Collins dancing over the guard/center gap? Sign me up for more. Peyton Manning is still trying to figure it out.
Questions surrounding the player: The only thing that is of concern here is how quickly Hightower recovers from the offseason surgery. He recently said he was ahead of schedule. With questions about where Jerod Mayo is in his recovery, the Pats can ill afford to have Hightower suffer a setback. He’s that important.
Overall Outlook: For was good as Hightower was a season ago, I think he can be even better this time around. He’s a confident kid with all the tools to put himself in the conversation with Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and teammate Collins as the best in the game. In fact, I’d argue he already did.
FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski's never suffered a break like the one Gordon Hayward did on Tuesday night, but he has been through enough to know what lies ahead as the Celtics forward stares at a lengthy recovery period.
"I saw it. I mean, I wish him nothing but wellness," Gronkowski said on Wednesday. "Hopefully he heals ASAP. You never want to see that with a player in any sport. When my friend showed me that last night, you get that feeling in your body, like, your heart drops. I wish him well.
"I can't wait to see him back. I know he's going to bounce back. Being here in Boston, he's going to be a hard worker it feels like. I can't wait to see him back."
Multiple back surgeries, a plate in his arm, a surgically-repaired ACL . . . Gronkowski has put in his share of rehabilitation work. Asked if he'd give Hayward any advice as he embarks on his road back to normalcy, Gronkowski's message was simple.
"Just go into rehab just like you go into anything else. Dominate it," Gronkowski said. "Come back when you feel ready. Come back when you're 100 percent . . . He wouldn't be where he is now if he wasn't a hard worker. I don't know the guy. Never met him. But it's not something you want to see as an athlete happen to anyone else."
Gronkowski acknowledged that in his experience, one of the biggest hurdles following an injury like that is the mental one. You quickly go from being a powerful athlete to a patient in need of help with even the smallest of tasks.
"There is a big mental challenge, definitely, with that," Gronkowski explained. "It's not just not being able to be with your teammates and all that. It's outside of football, too. Because it takes away your whole life, going out like that . . . You can't do anything. You can't walk. You gotta have people do [things for you]. You get really frustrated. You just want the people around you to help you out and keep you in the best mindset throughout the whole process."
FOXBORO -- Chris Hogan only had one catch for 19 yards against the Jets. He very nearly had a second grab in the second quarter, but Tom Brady's throw was off the mark, and Hogan's ribs were exposed for rookie safety Marcus Maye to hammer. The pass fell incomplete and Hogan crumpled to the turf.
He didn't leave the game, but Hogan did end up on Wednesday's injury report as a limited participant in practice due to a ribs injury. He was one of three players added to this week's injury report. Linebacker Elandon Roberts has an ankle injury and did not participate in Wednesday's workout. Guard Shaq Mason has a shoulder issue and was limited.
Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore, neither of whom were spotted at the start of the session, did not participate.
Here's Wednesday's full practice participation/injury report for Sunday's Patriots-Falcons game:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle)
LB Harvey Langi (back)
LB Elandon Roberts (ankle)
CB Eric Rowe (groin)
RB Rex Burkhead (ribs)
WR Chris Hogan (ribs)
G Shaq Mason (shoulder)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
K Matt Bryant (back)
OLB Vic Beasley Jr. (hamstring)
LB Jermaine Grace (hamstring)
LB Deion Jones (quadricep)
DE Takk McKinley (shoulder)
LB Duke Riley (knee)
WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring)
DL Courtney Upshaw (ankle/knee)