The New England Patriots already got terrible news regarding one of their players who opted out last season when longtime starting safety Patrick Chung announced his retirement, which created a gaping hole in the secondary.
It goes without saying that Dont’a Hightower is the most important of those eight opt outs, and as of a couple weeks ago, there was growing speculation about whether he’d follow in Chung’s footsteps and call it a career in light of his absence from OTAs.
Luckily for the Patriots, however, this narrative changed on Thursday.
According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Hightower reported back to Gillette Stadium this week.
While it wasn’t clear at first whether the veteran linebacker would return to the field for OTAs, which aren’t mandatory, his sheer presence apparently had his Patriots teammates buzzing.
Then, of course, he took to the practice field to complete the return. Good as new.
Dont’a Hightower being back is huge news for the Patriots.
Patriots fans couldn’t help but speculate that Hightower was pondering retirement after head coach Bill Belichick dropped a cryptic quote about the 31-year-old star’s extended absence from offseason workouts.
“With all the players who are on the roster and not here, my expectations are that they intend to play, but we know things can change. That’s always part of life and part of football. We’ll take it as it comes.”
Though fans would much rather Hightower be on the field, the fact he’s back at practice –even if it’s just on a leadership basis — proves he intends on returning for a ninth season. To say his return will pay massive dividends to the Patriots defense would be an understatement.
It’s not a stretch to call Hightower the best player on the Pats’ loaded defense, and they really struggled to get by without him last year. While their end-of-season stats didn’t look bad, their toothless presence in the middle of the field was glaring.
We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but Hightower’s return will change the entire complexion of New England’s ceiling in 2021. Assuming he’s still the dominant force he was before opting out, we’re probably talking about a two- or three-win difference.
Without the two-time Pro Bowler, the Patriots seem poised to win double-digit games and qualify for the playoffs. With him back in the fold, and assuming their QB play is up to snuff, we feel comfortable saying they could win as many as 11 or 12 games.
Again, we’d still like confirmation from Hightower himself that he plans on suiting up next season, but this was a promising start. All Patriots fans can hope for at this point is that his body responds well once he puts the pads back on and starts laying down some hits.