FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Dont’a Hightower looks like a different player. The past few years, he’s been training for more speed, quickness and staying power.
Now at 253 pounds, which is 17 pounds lighter than his draft day weight seven years ago, and seven pounds lighter than what he weighed during last year’s minicamp, the linebacker appears more suited for a job out on the edge rushing the passer, as opposed to the middle of the defense.
That was the intention last year, as Hightower started on the outside as an edge defender. But the plan was foiled when Ja’Whaun Bentley, the promising rookie from Purdue who had taken over Hightower’s prior role as the lead communicator with the “green dot” at middle linebacker, suffered a torn bicep muscle the third game of the season against Detroit and was done for the year.
So after a 1-2 start, Hightower moved back to the middle and resumed his communicator duties. Soon, the defense also started to turn it around. With Bentley back, it would seem that Hightower could once again try to be more of a full-time edge presence.
And that’s mostly where he’s been the first two days of minicamp, attacking from the outside.
For his part, Hightower isn’t so much worried about his position in the defense. He’s just glad his body is feeling so good and he’s found a routine that’s allowed him to stay healthy. He’s dropped weight and gained flexibility by adding hot yoga into his workouts the past few years. He and Patriots offensive lineman Shaq Mason are yoga buddies, training together in Tennessee.
“Things haven’t changed. I’m just trying to stay lean. That’s what I focused on last year, trying to stay healthy a majority of the year,” explained Hightower, who played in 15 regular season games last year. “I just want to stay on top of that, and keep going that route. I don’t want to change anything, because I want to stay on the field.”
The linebacker didn’t seem opposed to playing on the edge. Wherever he’s needed, that’s where he’ll be.
He’s made plenty of big plays flying in off the edge. That’s how he got to Matt Ryan for a pivotal sack in Super Bowl LI during that historic comeback win. He also sacked Rams quarterback Jared Goff in Super Bowl LIII coming off the edge with the defense dominating in the 13-3 victory.
“Whatever Bill wants me to do, wherever he wants me to play, that’s where I’ll be,” said Hightower, “but again, my body feels a lot better. My knees are a lot better. The yoga helps with my core, strengthens my quads, all my limbs have more flexibility. If all that ties together (with getting to the quarterback), I’m down for it. But I feel good. I just want to stay on top of it.”
Obviously, a key piece in this equation is Bentley. He’s been the lead middle linebacker calling plays during drills this week. If he stays healthy, and Belichick feels comfortable with him having the green dot, that should allow the head coach to move Hightower around, along with Michael Bennett. It will help make up for the loss of Trey Flowers.
The second-year linebacker said he was enjoying being part of the on-field experience once again.
“I’m well, I’m excited to be out here,” said Bentley. “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
Bentley indicated he would gladly take on the responsibility of wearing the green dot.
“We all have different roles. We’re versatile,” said Bentley. “A lot of guys call plays. It’s day by day. If they need me to do it, I’ll do it.”
However it shakes out, Hightower looks lean and mean, and ready to tackle another season. He said he might even lose a few more pounds, and get down to 245-250 by the time the season starts.
He’s excited about working with new linebacker coach and former teammate Jerod Mayo, who has been calling the plays for the defense during minicamp,
“That’s the key to the lot right there,” Hightower said of Mayo. “He’s the same guy you knew as a player. He’s the exact same as a coach. He just has a lot of wisdom, and we greatly appreciate what he’s giving us.”
Hightower is also happy to reunite with Jamie Collins, and believes the group in general on defense might be even better than last year.
“There’s going to be ups and downs, but I think all the guys on the defense have the right mentality,” said Hightower. “I think we’re excited to work with each other. We know what we have. I’m excited.”