FOXBORO - The Patriots went to work on their defense this offseason, not too long after giving up more than 500 yards of offense to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII: They gave their pass-rush a bump (Adrian Clayborn); they added depth at corner following Malcolm Butler's departure (Jason McCourty); and they bulked up in the middle of their defensive line (Danny Shelton).
But the player who looks like he has the chance to be the most important addition to Bill Belichick's defense is linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The defensive captain was knocked from last season in Week 7 with a torn pectoral, and though he was absent from OTA workout No. 2 (the first that was open to reporters), Hightower has been out there for each session since.
On Thursday, the second OTA practice open to media, the 28-year-old looked fluid in his drops and took regular reps during team periods.
"It feels good. It’s been a while," Hightower said. "It feels good to get my feet wet, get my feet back under me. It feels good to be out there with my teammates, new and old. Just ready to keep moving forward and getting better."
Hightower wouldn't say he's back to 100 percent just yet but that he's working toward full health. And even though he looked fine Thursday, he said there's only so much he can glean from the work that's put in at OTAs, also known as "passing camp."
"I just know that I feel great right now, I’m moving around, I’m not having any problems," he said. "I mean, I won’t know how I really feel until we get pads on. I mean, 7-on-7 is for receivers and DBs, and that’s not my thing. So, I won’t know until I get the pads on."
When asked if he was confident he'd be ready for Week 1, Hightower didn't commit, but he noted, "I plan on being out there for everything."
The Patriots certainly could've benefitted from having Hightower out there for their Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. At that point in time, Hightower was in the middle of attacking his rehab work, wishing he could have been getting after Nick Foles, LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and the rest of the Philly offense instead.
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"It hurt, but I was just trying to do what I could do," he explained. "Not much in the moment was going to do much about it. So, I still talked to Kyle [Van Noy] and [Elandon Roberts] and those guys and gave them my ear when I could. But it hurt and stuff, but it just goes to show you’re one play away from missing. You know, you’re used to missing a couple games and being able to fight through it, but this year I wasn’t able to do that. So, I’m trying to take every measure I can to prevent that from happening again."
One of Hightower's former teammates and on-the-field mentors Jerod Mayo had been in Hightower's shoes before, suffering season-ending injuries while his teammates were in the middle of making a run. Part of what Mayo did as he rehabbed was absorb as much film as possible with a coach - often Steve Belichick - to stay as fresh as possible when it came to the mental aspect of the game.
From the sounds of it, Hightower did something similar with coaching assistant DeMarcus Covington, gaining a better understanding of the methods and "whys" behind Patriots defensive calls.
"I watched a lot of film of myself," Hightower said. "I saw a lot of things that I need to work on. DeMarcus Covington’s done a great job with that, as far as in our linebacker room with helping us. One of the things I wanted to be able to work on and know a little bit more about was man-to-man coverage, and we’ve been working more on that and why we’re running certain styles and why our philosophy is what it is, so a little bit deeper than, 'What is Cover 2 or Cover 5? Or why did we run that?'
"Picking some of the offensive guy’s brains, like [Brian] Hoyer or [Tom] Brady, like ‘Whenever we’re in Cover 2, what are you looking at? We’re doubling over here, so what are you looking at?’ It definitely made me sit back and want to learn a little bit more about the game so that can help me get back and be able to move a little bit quicker than what I am."
Wherever Hightower lines up in 2018 - whether he's off the line, where he spent most of his time Thursday, or off the edge - that processing speed should help him. Still, he'll need to be on the field to show it off.
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He said on Thursday that he's doing everything he can to make sure he prevents another season-ending issue. He said he sat down with Dr. James Andrews and others to come up with "preventive matters to help strengthen those small ligament things that a lot of guys have a problem with, whether it’s rolling an ankle or spraining an AC joint or something," he said.
Hightower has missed 22 regular-season games the past four years due to injury, and if he's healthy in 2018, he should be the most impactful piece dropped into Belichick's defense this offseason.