Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower, meeting with reporters at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, said he felt more at ease late last season, which showed in his improved play. Now, he's looking to continue the progression from follower to leader on the Pats defense.
“I think I just finally got comfortable," said Hightower, a 2012 first-round pick (25th overall) from Alabama. "I wasn’t asked to do that my first year, and to lose the amount of leadership on the team, I haven’t been asked to do anything like that since college. At first, it was a little shaky and a little nervous, but all the guys were still behind me and they talked me through it and I eventually started playing better, and I feel like we all started playing better.”
Hightower’s troubles at midseason were apparent after Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo went down with injuries. It bottomed out in the regular-season meeting with the Broncos in Week 12 when he was benched for the second half. He said he's ready for a leadership role.
“I definitely feel like it’s going to be easier this time," he said. "I got thrown into the fire there with the injuries and stuff, and I’m a lot more comfortable with it now. So from this point on, through workouts and film and whatever, just talking to some of the younger guys, I can definitely feel like I’m starting to be looked at as the next leader besides Vince and [safety] Devin [McCourty] and Mayo and all those older guys. I definitely feel like it will be a little bit easier this time.”
The Patriots have lost linebackers Brandon Spikes (Bills) and Dane Fletcher (Bucs) to free agency. Hightower said they'll be missed, but he's happy to have Mayo back. The former All-Pro lost for most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle.
“Spikes was a big part of the defense and played with a lot of emotion. Dane [Fletcher] was a great special teams guy as well as a guy who could come in and play and play as well as he did, I feel like he did a great job," Hightower said. "We’re building right now and we’re all kind of getting back to what we were doing, watching a little film, talking about things. It will be interesting how things [unfold]."
On Mayo: "We’re all glad to have him back, definitely one of the cornerstones, him and Vince being back. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year how things play out.”