Patriots

Curran: Hightower's a healthy addition to the ailing Patriots defense

Curran: Hightower's a healthy addition to the ailing Patriots defense

FOXBORO – Nobody has to remind Dont'a Hightower that he’s got an injury history. He knows it better than anyone. He’s lived it. Every season since he got to the league.

But reminders in the form of questions inevitably come. They came on Thursday after the Patriots first practice of 2018 training camp.

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It was Hightower’s first true practice since last October, when he tore a pectoral muscle against the Falcons. He played a career-low five games last year and, while we’ve spent hours upon hours talking about the guy who saved a Super Bowl but didn’t play against the Eagles, we’ve spent considerably less time talking about the guy who saved two Super Bowls and also didn’t play vs. Philly.

There are two hard facts about Hightower that most everyone can agree upon as he enters his seventh NFL season. He’s the defensive player the Patriots can least afford to do without. At some point every season, the team will have to do without him.

I asked him why he thinks some players at his position can go blissfully along, year after year, and somehow steer clear of major injury.

“If I knew that answer, I’d be out there for 16 games,” he laughed. “It is hard and everybody plays different. The position I play and what they ask me to do . . . it’s a lot but it’s the best of both worlds, whether it’s rushing the passer or banging heads with a center or guard. But at the end of the day, it’s part of football and everybody’s body is a little bit different.

“All I can do is focus on trying to stay healthy,” he added. “Honest and truly. There’s nothing I can do aside from that. I’m not going to change the way I've been playing for 18-20 years. I can’t do that. But realistically, from what I’ve been doing, I feel great. I’ve still got a ways to go but as far as coming back in the offseason. This is the best I’ve felt. I had a great OTA. I was flying around, so I’m just gonna stay on the same plan I’ve been on . . . 

“It would mean a lot (to play 16 games),” he said. “I definitely put in a lot of work in the offseason. I haven’t done it yet. It’s important to me because those games I miss it hurts less for me and more because I feel I’m letting down my teammates.”

Until the practices begin to stack up and a preseason game is played, there isn’t a lot new to talk about. So a portion of our time with Hightower inevitably involved how the team will dispatch what happened in the Super Bowl.

“I can’t speak for everyone else but for me, I got a lot on my plate,” he said. “The way the season ended last year, I got my own goals for myself and I want to be able to contribute a lot more than I did last year. The stuff that happened last year doesn’t matter to me as much as being focused on what I have to do this year. Ain’t nobody worried about what happened last year.”

At this time last year, the Patriots were working to diversify Hightower’s role. Though he’d played plenty on the edge in his first six seasons, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had him there almost exclusively in the first few weeks stepping in for the freshly-retired Rob Ninkovich. Eventually, with the struggling to get its assignments communicated correctly, Hightower moved back to inside linebacker.

It helped.

This year, with Adrian Clayborn signed as a free agent and Trey Flowers an established edge guy, Hightower may find himself back in the middle, in the command center. On Thursday, he talked about the linebacker group and the quick learning that Hightower says is going on under Brian Flores, the acting defensive coordinator with Patricia gone.  

“It’s a little different (with Flores),” he said. “The approach is definitely different. I think guys are learning it a lot better, a lot easier. I think a lot of young guys are stepping up and able to pick up with some of the older guys so it definitely works in our favor.”

How is it different?

“The way he teaches it,” said Hightower. “The way guys absorb it a little bit different. We meet a little different. We talk about things a little different. Just small, quirky things that you necessarily can’t put a finger on. But it’s obvious when you have first-year guys come in or guys who just signed come in and pick things up you can tell there’s a difference somewhere along the line. It helps everyone on the field when everybody knows what they’re doing. You can play faster and do different things. Whatever he’s doing is working.”

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It’s impossible to hear that and not take it as a harsh review of Patricia’s schemes. But, as they say, it is what it is. Despite the annual head coaching courtship of Patricia before he got the Lions job, the performance of the Patriots defense was frequently passive and uneven.

If they play faster and bring more pressure under Flores, that will be a departure from what we’ve grown accustomed to. Will that be better? Honestly, it can’t hurt.

And if Hightower himself can avoid getting hurt, that will help the defense more than anything.

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Patriots rumors: Latest buzz on free agents Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy

Patriots rumors: Latest buzz on free agents Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy

Tom Brady isn't the only important free agent the New England Patriots have to consider re-signing this offseason.

The strength of the Patriots in 2019 was their defense, and several valuable members of that unit have expiring contracts. Among that group are linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, as well as safety Devin McCourty.

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Here are the latest updates on those three Patriots free agents with a few weeks to go before the market opens.

Devin McCourty
McCourty is the fifth-longest tenured Patriots player behind Brady, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, wide receiver Julian Edelman and special teams ace Matthew Slater. He's been one of the team's best players and leaders since he was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft. McCourty's five-year, $47.5 million contract is about to expire, and even though he's 32 years old, his talent is still impressive. 

Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reported Thursday "the understanding is the Patriots want the veteran safety back."

McCourty has not missed a game since the 2014 season. He tallied 58 total tackles, two forced fumbles (one recovery) and seven passes defensed last season. His five interceptions were tied for the second-most in the league. The Patriots secondary ranked among the league's best in the 2019 campaign and held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 56.5 completion percentage. McCourty played an important role in that success, and the Pats would be wise to bring him back.

Kyle Van Noy
The Patriots acquiring Kyle Van Noy and a seventh-round draft pick from the Detroit Lions in exchange for a sixth-round pick in October of 2016 turned out to be one of their best trades in recent memory. Van Noy has been a fixture of New England's linebacker group since his arrival, and he's helped the team win two Super Bowl titles over that span.

USA TODAY Sports' Henry McKenna reported Thursday that Van Noy's camp and the Patriots aren't scheduled to meet this week.

Van Noy tallied 56 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles (two recoveries), three passes defensed and a touchdown last season. He's also been pretty durable with zero games missed due to injury since 2017.

If Van Noy hits the open market, he'll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.

Jamie Collins
Collins returned to the Patriots last season after a disappointing two-year run with the Cleveland Browns, and the veteran linebacker re-established himself as a top-tier player in Bill Belichick's defense.

The Boston Globe's Jim McBride tweeted Thursday that Collins "is expected to have many suitors." This isn't surprising given how well Collins played in 2019.

Collins led the Patriots defense in total tackles (81) and sacks (seven) last season, while also tallying three forced fumbles (one recovery), seven passes defensed, one touchdown and a career-high three interceptions.

Curran: What happens when the GOAT feels like a lame duck?

Patriots told Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney he had 'loser's mentality' in combine interview

Patriots told Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney he had 'loser's mentality' in combine interview

Under Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots have created a very defined culture. They don't deal with nonsense and players they pick often have specific traits and ways of thinking that fit their winning culture.

And Vanderbilt tight end Jared Pinkney found out about this the hard way at the 2020 NFL Combine.

The NFL hopeful described his meeting with the Patriots during the combine and spoke of their dedication to culture and how one wrong answer made the team say that Pinkney's response was "a loser's mentality."

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“It’s interesting, because [with] a team that’s been winning for as long as they have, you expect them to come in with a certain mentality and to share that mentality and to spread it and impart it on you,” Pinkney said, per NESN's Zack Cox. “And that’s exactly what happened. I gave a kind of wonky answer, and it was like, ‘No, that’s a loser’s mentality.’ And I was like, ‘OK, my bad.’ [raises hands] They were like, ‘You need to be like this and that and that,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, sir. I’m better.’ ”

That had to be an uncomfortable moment for Pinkney, but he surely isn't the first prospect to have something like that happen to him at the combine. And that was just one of the responses he gave during his session with the team, so he probably did fine overall.

It's no surprise that the Patriots interviewed Pinkey, who our own Phil Perry identified as a Prototypical Patriot to watch in the Senior Bowl. And the Patriots are looking to add some talent at tight end, as they got little to no production out of their triage of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson, and Ryan Izzo last season and never properly replaced Rob Gronkowski after his retirement during the 2019 offseason.

Pinkney (6-foot-4, 257 pounds) had 20 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns as a senior. His most productive collegiate season came as a junior in 2018 when he grabbed 50 passes for 774 yards and seven touchdowns.