Kyle Van Noy

Hightower’s return is Patriots' most important defensive addition

Hightower’s return is Patriots' most important defensive addition

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.

"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. 

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.

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Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

Hightower’s presence at OTAs leads to a look at linebacker depth

FOXBORO - Dont'a Hightower was among the missing during Tuesday's OTA that was open to reporters. He was prominently featured on the team's website as a participant in Thursday's OTA, though.

It's a positive development for one of the Patriots best and most versatile defenders. Hightower tore his pectoral in October and missed the remainder of the 2017 season, leading to some shuffling of personnel both at the second level and on the edge. 

Hightower snagged one of the team's photos of his participation in Thursday's workout and slapped it on his Instagram page. 

Hightower's presence on the turf behind Gillette Stadium, even if he was limited in the practice, allows our minds to wander a bit and look ahead to what the Patriots depth chart might look like at linebacker with him in the fold. 

The Patriots are consistently altering their fronts and Hightower's adaptability allows his role to change with whatever scheme Bill Belichick deploys. 

Hightower can play on the line or off. He can be used as a "Sam" linebacker at the second level in a 4-3 or at the end of the line of scrimmage in 3-4 looks. He played on the left end early last season - a spot we identified yesterday as a potential landing spot for Derek Rivers. And if the Patriots needed Hightower to play as a "Mike" linebacker, he has the ability to do that as well. 

Sub packages, base packages . . . Hightower can line up in a variety of front-seven spots for the Patriots regardless of the situation, which is why when healthy he's been able to serve as an every-down player. (He played 92.4 percent of Patriots defensive snaps in 2014 and 83.1 percent of the snaps in 2016.)

How might the rest of the Patriots linebacker corps slot in if Hightower is a full go for training camp? Let's take a look . . . 

MR. MIX AND MATCH


Kyle Van Noy is probably the closest approximation to Hightower that the Patriots have on their roster. When Hightower went out last season, it was Van Noy who moved around the front seven and handled a variety of responsibilities. He's probably best suited as a "Will" linebacker, someone who can use his athleticism to make plays in different areas depending on the situation, but Van Noy's ability to handle multiple responsibilities in New England's defense is part of the reason why the team likes him as much as they do. He was handed a two-year extension early last season. 

LIKE "MIKE" 


Elandon Roberts often handled the "Mike" responsibilities in the Patriots defense last season. The third-year player out of Houston might have the inside track on this role in 2018, but he could be pushed by rookie fifth-round selection Ja'Whaun Bentley out of Purdue. Both players seem like they're at their best against the run game, unafraid to fill their lanes as prideful "thumpers." What may separate this duo is which player can more consistently cover the correct gaps on first and second down, and which player more effectively communicates the defense to their teammates around them. Whether either player can contribute on special teams could also alter how the workload is distributed here. 

WHEN THERE'S A "WILL"


Van Noy would likely be the first choice here for the Patriots, but there are a few others who could be angling for time here. Marquis Flowers re-signed with the Patriots this offseason after an impressive end-of-the-season run where he showed up as a pass-rusher with enough athleticism to be trusted to run with backs in the passing game. Flowers was also a key contributor on special teams last season. Rookie sixth-round pick Christian Sam could also compete for "Will" reps. A defensive back in high school, Sam bulked up at Arizona State but remains a good athlete and could be a fit behind Van Noy. Special teamers Nicholas Grigsby and Brandon King work out with the linebackers and could be options here if they were ever called upon defensively.

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Butler and Amendola's former teammates reach out on social media

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Butler and Amendola's former teammates reach out on social media

After Malcolm Butler mysteriously sat out the entire Super Bowl, it was pretty obvious his time in New England was over.

Today's free agency action confirmed that thought and he was scooped up by the Tennessee Titans.

Danny Amendola's future was a little more uncertain, but now we know he is heading to South Beach to play for the Dolphins.

Butler immediately rejoins his former teammate Logan Ryan who had an interesting reaction to the deal.

But Ryan sang a much less cryptic tune when he texted back and forth with Albert Breer.

The McCourty brothers were also fired up about the opportunity and money Butler is landing. The first tweet is from Jason McCourty, the second from Devin McCourty.

Julian Edelman reached out to his bro Danny Amendola as he departs for South Beach.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BgRqAATBACR/

Tom Brady also showered love on his favorite third down receiver this past season.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BgR8k2Ehufs/