Dont'a Hightower feels he still has a ways to go after missing time


Dont'a Hightower feels he still has a ways to go after missing time

FOXBORO -- It could have been that it was the last question of his press conference on Thursday and he was ready to step down from the podium. It could have been that the answer didn't require much in the way of thought.

Whatever the reason, Dont'a Hightower was quick to reply when I asked if he was happy with where he was physically after playing in two games -- a loss to the Panthers and a win over the Bucs -- following a two-game absence due to an MCL injury. 

"No," he said without hesitation.

Instead of dwelling on the state of his conditioning, however, Hightower highlighted the fact that time lost for him was a missed opportunity to work with teammates -- especially the new ones -- and develop alongside them. 


"I mean, just missing time like that is time that I’m not going to get back, time that I missed on the field with my teammates, that chemistry that I missed," he said. "But my experience in the defense helps me a little bit more than most. Every rep that I can get whether it’s in there with [Deatrich] Wise, or [Adam] Butler, or [Cassius] Marsh or just guys that I’m not in there with, I take full advantage of that.

"Even today watching film I got the new guys right around me so we're all talking and we're communicating and we're trying to progress as a defense. It’s not a one-man thing. We're not depending on one person or anything like that. We’re only as good as our weakest link so we're just trying to keep everybody as sharp as we can."

Hightower played in a season-high 62 of 72 snaps in Tampa Bay. Against the Panthers five days prior, he played in 37 of a possible 63.

That he saw as much playing time as he did on short rest is an indication that a) his knee was feeling strong and b) the coaching staff felt it needed him on the field for almost 90 percent of the team's defensive plays. Hightower responded with what looked like fresh legs, moving with good energy and without any obvious limitations. It wasn't a perfect night, but he recorded four quarterback hurries and made a key run stop in the third quarter that helped force a Bucs punt. 

Last Thursday's steady workload for HIghtower was a notable change from what had been a herky-jerky beginning to the 2017 season for the 27-year-old. He spent the early portion of training camp on the physically unable to perform list, and did not play in the preseason. Once he got going, he had the carpet ripped out from under him in the form of a Chiefs defender falling on his leg during the season opener. 

By Week 4 he was healthy enough to be trusted in critical situations -- he sacked Cam Newton late in the fourth quarter to force a punt and allow the Patriots an opportunity to tie -- but he was far from a full-time player.

Just a few days later, though, Hightower was ready for more work. And after spending the vast majority of his snaps on the edge in Weeks 1 and 4, Hightower was plopped back into the middle of things for the Patriots in Tampa, which may have helped iron out whatever communication problems the team had against Carolina the week before.

"I think communication is on me whether I’m on the ball or not, but it’s definitely a lot easier being in the middle," he said. "Being on the edge is kind of on an island. Last week was great on the ball or off the ball. 

"I think in the linebacker room with me, KV [Kyle Van Noy], [Marquis] Flowers, David [Harris] and E-Rob [Elandon Roberts] – I think we've done a good job as far as trying to grow the front-seven, the back end as far as communication and how we go about that. That helped last week so hopefully we'll just continue to build on that. Half the time it was us misaligned and wasn’t communication, so if we can nip that in the bud and stop ourselves from shooting ourselves in the foot, that'll be big."

It will be worth watching to see if Hightower continues to see time in the middle -- a move his former teammate Jerod Mayo had been clamoring for on Quick Slants the Podcast -- against the Jets. The two-time captain's presence, and his voice, carries weight with teammates when it comes time to make adjustments at the line. And when the pre-snap conversations are brief (or one-sided) that helps the Patriots play faster, Hightower explained.

"Last week was a lot faster and a lot more aggressive," he said. "If we were able to communicate and talk and get all of that stuff out of the way then we're able to play faster. It shouldn’t have to come to that. It should be that every play. Like I said, we're building, hopefully. It’s a little later than we'd like to, but there's no time like the present."

Hightower could say the same for himself. It's a little later than he'd like to be hitting his stride, but it looks like he's getting close.


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."