So far, the Patriots spring workouts have been blissfully uneventful, in that no news is good news sort of way. Granted, there was Cam Newton bruising a bone in his throwing hand Friday by whacking it on a teammates' helmet. (And the subsequent rumors that he actually hurt it somewhere off the field that I haven't gotten into because there's been no actionable intel on it by anyone credible and he took first team reps the whole first half of practice.) But on that, Bill Belichick told reporters this morning, "He's doing alright. He won't participate today, but he's getting better." And asked if it's anything serious answered, "No. Well, he's not out there but I think he'll be alright." So without violating any HIPAA laws, I think we can reasonably term his medical diagnosis "Alright." We're likely not going to see him practice again until official training camp, which means more QB1 reps for Mac Jones. And since I'm on Team McCorkle and the kid's development is my new Operation: Warp Speed, I for one consider that a positive.
But today's practice is different. It's brought some actual big news. Great news, in fact. The OTA phase of practices is over. And while the "O" doesn't actually stand for "Optional," it might as well because those practices are the NFL equivalent of the Friday before a long weekend back when I worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Where you only showed up if you had nothing else going on. But today's was the first mandatory practice. And among the names of Pats players who had missed earlier practices, a list that included Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Matt Judon, N'Keal Harry, Trent Brown, and Trent Brown's tattoo:
... was Dont'a Hightower. This is huge, huge news.
It was not unexpected, mind you. Hightower has been seen around the place for workouts and meetings. But until you see him actually dressed and actually taking snaps, you're perfectly justified in wondering if last year's opt out is about to become his post-pandemic lifestyle. Taking a season off can sometimes be great for a guy. It obviously worked out for Rob Gronkowski. Randy Moss came back after sitting out 2011 to catch 28 balls with a 15.5 YPR average and three TDs. But then in 2000, Reggie White unretired and couldn't hold a flickering candle to his pre-retirement self, with just 16 tackles over a full season.
Hightower's situation is different, obviously. He took the collectively bargained leave of absence out of caution for his family, not because he got tired of playing. You just had to wonder if he was going to be one of those people who takes a sabbatical and realizes life without work is preferable to life with it. The fact he's back is yet another reason for us to rejoice. A giant step back to normal.
It's hard to overstate how big an impact his return will have on this team. He might not be the only reason the Pats defense went from giving up the fewest yards and fewest points (by a margin of 34) in the league in 2019 to 15th fewest in yards and 7th fewest points in 2020. But the appalling lack of Hightower was by far the biggest factor.
How big a factor? Jerod Mayo explained it last week. “I’ll be honest, it was huge," he said. "It was huge. And I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, it’s like the times that I wasn’t hurt, I was kind of a coach on the field. So having a guy like Hightower, at the end of the day, you can call the play, but as soon as you cross the white lines, those guys are in charge. Any time you have a guy as smart as Hightower, who’s able to cross the white lines, you feel comfortable. Like, this guy is going to make the right decision nine times out of 10.”
That might be a humblebrag coming from practically anybody else. But when it comes from Mayo, who literally is a coach and had no problem making the transition because he'd been coaching this unit from his Defensive Rookie of the Year season in 2008 to his last. All he had to do was take off the pads and stand off to the side with a headset on. Hightower stepped into the same role. And left a Marianas Trench-sized hole in the middle of the middle of the 2020 team that opponents exploited. Getting him back might be the best acquisition the team made this year. And putting him back alongside a key reacquisition like Kyle Van Noy, while turning young guys who were pressed into pulling extra duty last year - Ju'Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings and even hybrid LB/S Kyle Dugger - into more depth/situational roles will have a butterfly effect on the entire defensive side of the ball.
On a side note, I've been in a bunch of Twitter conversations over a post where I said, all things considered, like talent, durability, longevity, leadership, postseason success, and so on, that Devin McCourty has been the second best Patriot of the Dynasty Era. And more than a few made the case for Hightower. A valid case at that. Granted, he's missed 26 of a possible 128 career games to McCourty's 5 of a potential 176. But he made colossal, history-changing plays in three Super Bowl wins:
--Stopping Marshawn Lynch at the one
--Strip-sacking Matt Ryan
--Two sacks of Jared Goff, including one on a 3rd & 7 from the New England 26, the Rams deepest penetration of the game.
And it's fair to say it's no coincidence that when Hightower was on IR in 2017, the Patriots produced one of the worst defensive displays in Super Bowl history.
So the good news this offseason continues. And thanks to the re-addition of this clutch leader/ coach on the field, a return to the No. 1 defense in the league is a very real possibility. Hallelujah.