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Hightower's veteran leadership is key to Patriots' success

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If you listen to teammates and coaches talk about Dont’a Hightower, you'll notice a familiar theme: leadership.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick dropped the "L" word Monday as the veteran linebacker returned to minicamp after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

"It was good to see High. He's worked right in very quickly," Belichick said. "He's obviously a smart player with a lot of experience. A lot of leadership for us on the team."

Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, who played with Hightower for four seasons before becoming his position coach in 2019, was a bit more expansive earlier this month about what the Patriots co-captain brings to the table.

Mayo: Pats look forward to having Hightower's football mind in 2021

"Hightower's a true professional," Mayo said. "He's one of the smartest players that I've been around and had the pleasure to coach. He knows all the X's and O's. He'll probably be a coach one day, honestly.

"Just having his presence, that stuff is definitely going to trickle down to the rest of the group. 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 can speak from experience. The Patriots' first-round pick out of Alabama in the 2012 NFL Draft is the team's third-longest-tenured player behind only Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty. He's won three Super Bowls, made two Pro Bowls and started at least 12 games in all but one of his eight NFL seasons.

 

Most importantly, Hightower has been the lone constant amid a changing of the guard in New England's front seven, from the Mayo-Vince Wilfork-Rob Ninkovich era of the mid-2010s to a present-day group of relative newcomers like Kyle Van Noy, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Anfernee Jennings.

And after learning the "Patriot Way" from the veterans before him, Hightower is embracing his role as a veteran leader to pay it forward.

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"Everywhere I've been since I was young, you're only strong as your weakest link," Hightower told reporters Tuesday in a video conference. "And I don't want to keep any secrets to myself, whether that's taking care of my body or how I diagnose plays or what my schedule is or whatever.

"When it comes to a young guy, I'm essentially here to help. Mayo was there for me whenever I needed help. (Brandon) Spikes was there for me. ... The list goes on. That group that we had was built up a lot on brotherhood and camaraderie, so I'm going to do my best to bestow whatever knowledge I can on these young guys."

Leadership seems to come naturally for Hightower, who won two national championships during his four-year tenure at Alabama from 2008 to 2011 and was one of just two Crimson Tide players to start as a true freshman.

"[Dont’a has] shown really good leadership and I think that’s very, very important to our defensive team," Alabama head coach (and close friend of Belichick) Nick Saban said of Hightower prior to his senior season in 2011, via The Crimson White.

"He’s a great leader, not just being a linebacker," then-Alabama defensive lineman Josh Chapman added of Hightower. "I mean, the things he does on and off the field, he just motivates you to want to do more."

A full decade later, Hightower is still thriving as a leader on and off the field -- and the Patriots should benefit greatly from his veteran's perspective as he returns to the field in 2021.