FOXBOROUGH — Dont'a Hightower was unexpectedly thrust into a leadership role for the New England Patriots in 2013. Entering the 2014 season, he has time to prepare like a leader.
Jerod Mayo will make his return in 2014 after a torn pectoral muscle spelled a premature end to his 2013 season, but Hightower still feels that he can carry over his leadership role from last season to this season.
"Definitely, and I definitely feel like it's going to be easier this time," Hightower said at a news conference at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. "I kind of got thrown in the fire there with the injuries, and I'm a lot more comfortable with it now, so I mean from this point on, through workouts and film or whatever, just talking to some of the younger guys, I could definitely feel like I'm starting to be looked at as maybe the next leader, besides Vince [Wilfork] and Devin [McCourty] and Mayo and all those older guys. I definitely feel like it'll be a little bit easier this time."
Hightower took over the on-field leadership responsibilities by wearing the green dot helmet for radio communication with the coaching staff on the sideline. It is generally assumed that Mayo will resume his ownership of those responsibilities when he returns to the field, but Hightower grew in that role and others during the 2013 season.
Not only was Hightower asked to man the green dot helmet, but he was also playing out of position at times to compensate for the loss of Mayo. As the season progressed, though, so did Hightower's play.
"I think I just finally got comfortable," he said. "I wasn't asked to do that my first year, and then to lose a lot 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 I was a little nervous, but all the guys are still behind me, and they talked me through it, and eventually, I started playing better and then I feel like we all started playing better."
He spent parts of last season filling in for Mayo, but in 2014, he may have to fill in for Brandon Spikes, who signed with the rival Buffalo Bills this offseason as a free agent. That role seems more well-suited for Hightower's skill set, which is similar to Spikes' but a bit more varied.
Hightower acknowledges that replacing Spikes will be about more than just his role on the field.
"Spikes was a big heart of the defense," Hightower said. "[He] played with a lot of emotion.
"It might not be me [replacing Spikes], it might be somebody that nobody would ever expect," he added, "but I definitely feel like from the point we're at now, from everybody working out, and the way we're all working out, and we're having fun, I definitely feel like that's not going to be a problem."
One option is for a wholesale swap of Spikes for Hightower in the defense, but that option does not fully account for Hightower's skill set. At Alabama, Hightower grew accustomed to rushing the passer as an edge defender in the nickel defense. In New England, he has not had an opportunity to put his skills as a pass-rusher to use very often.
If he had his way, we would be seeing a lot more of him getting after the quarterback.
"Third down, honestly, I'll just put it out there: I would much rather rush or blitz than to cover: zone, man, or whatever," he said. "Third down is a fun down, whether you're covering or whatever you're doing, because you can do different kinds of things and come at the quarterback all kinds of different ways. So as long as I'm able to be on the field on third down, whatever they ask me to do, I'm more than willing to do it."
His preference should come as no surprise; the nature of defense is aggressive, attacking the opposing offense, and Hightower wants to be the aggressor. He rushed the passer 83 times on his 1,012 snaps in 2013, and 13 hurries, three hits, and a sack, according to stats website Pro Football Focus.
Will he bang the table for more responsibilities as a pass-rusher?
"That might be the case this year," he said, jokingly, "but we have a lot of talented guys out there, and that's up to the coaches to if they want to move people around, or the scheme that they might have or whatever. So again, if that's what they want me to do, or if they ask me if I want to do that, of course, but it'll definitely be a Bill Belichick thing."
When listing off the current leaders of the defense — Wilfork, McCourty, and Mayo — they all share one thing in common: their ability to fill multiple spots. Perhaps a future as a movable chess piece is the next step in Hightower's evolution as a leader.
Hightower could be doing any number of things for the Patriots in 2014, but regardless of his on-field role, he can lean on his experiences from last year as he takes the next step toward becoming a leader for the defense.