There were times last season when Dont'a Hightower played with a great weight on his shoulders.
As a first-round pick in his second year, he was expected by many to take the presumed "leap." Then Jerod Mayo was placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral and the responsibility of organizing the second-level defense fell to Hightower.
He felt pressure to play like Mayo, who had been the glue in the middle of the field for New England for six seasons. Like Mayo, he was given the responsibilities of wearing the green dot on his helmet, the sole line of on-the-field communication between the defense and the coaching staff.
It was a lot to take on.
Hightower looked slow at times as he tried to process everything and get his teammates in the correct spots. There were plays when he was in coverage and he appeared lost. The way Mayo usually seemed to be in the right place at the right time, Hightower wasn't.
Eventually the green dot was taken away and given to safety Steve Gregory.
"I haven't been put in that situation in a while," Hightower told Tom E. Curran last week following New England's ninth OTA session. "Having a lot of that pressure put on me, but it was a lot easier for me after I hit that milestone. Devin [McCourty] had my back. Sealver [Siliga], a lot of the younger guys. Chandler [Jones] was there when I was there. Jamie [Collins] was there beside me and they helped me get through that process.
"Ultimately when I got the green dot back and I started playing better, it was more me not trying to be Mayo, not trying to play his game and playing mine."
Down the stretch, Hightower became one of the team's best players on defense, highlighted by a performance against Indianapolis in their Divisional Playoff in which he recorded eight tackles and an interception at the end of the second half that preserved New England's nine-point lead.
With Mayo back in the fold during OTAs and for minicamp -- which begins on Tuesday -- Hightower can continue to concentrate on his own job and not have that pressure of trying to replace a captain.
"The thing that I want to work on probably the most is just having a lot more fun," he said. "Those last couple games of the season, whenever I got a lot more comfortable and relaxed, I was just having fun and I played a lot better. So going out, playing stress free, and [not] worrying about things, I feel like that will elevate my play a lot more."
After nine practices -- the team had one more last Friday -- Hightower seemed to think he and his defensive teammates were out to a good start in that regard. He seemed loose and confident in his interaction with reporters and joked that he couldn't wait to put pads on.
"Being a linebacker, that's something that I like to do," Hightower said with a smile. "I'm not a 7-on-7 person, I don't like to chase Shane Vereen around, or anybody like that, so whenever we get pads on, it gets a little bit more physical. That's what I like to do."
During OTAs, Hightower lined up in the middle of the field alongside Mayo and Collins, but he was also seen on the end of the line of scrimmage, lined up next to New England's defensive ends as an extra pass rusher.
Wherever he's asked to play, it seems he'll carry with him the same approach that helped him transform his game mid-season last year.
"We're having fun, we're learning a lot, I mean most of all, we're doing our job and we're having fun," he said. "Being on defense, it's a lot more fun when you can go out there and have fun instead of worrying about making checks and stuff, when everything comes a lot more fluent because you have that experience, and guys are ready to pick it up a lot faster, it makes it a lot of fun."