The beginning of the 2022 regular season is a week away but there is still a noticeable absence on the New England Patriots roster.
Dont’a Hightower remains a free agent and seems poised to not play during the upcoming year. At 32 years old, the talented linebacker has failed to drum up any interest.
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Still, Hightower’s presence is still felt in New England. His locker at Gillette Stadium hasn’t been given out and no one on the roster is wearing No. 54.
Current Patriots linebacker Raekwon McMillan currently has the locker next to Hightower’s former home. He said that the Patriots made a point of not giving it away any time soon, out of respect for their former teammate.
“This wasn’t a thing that I decided, but the whole Patriots organization, we’re gonna stay away from 54 for a year,” McMillan said. “Just out of respect for him, who he was, and what he did as a player for this organization. Everybody’s going to stay away from the number. It’s a nice number to have, great linebacker number, but we’re going to stay away from it.”
McMillian was asked if he believes Hightower could return and the current Patriots linebacker has noticed that Hightower is enjoying his time off.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Every time I talk to him he seems like he’s having a good time with his family. We’ll see what happens.”
How Well Did Hightower Perform in New England?
Hightower was drafted by the Patriots in the first round in 2012 out of Alabama. He played nine seasons with New England and appeared in 117 games. Throughout his career, Hightower racked up 569 tackles, 27.0 sacks, 5 fumble recoveries and 2 forced fumbles, per Pro Football Reference.
The linebacker was one of the leaders on defenses that won Super Bowls in the 2014, 2016, and 2018 seasons. Hightower made key contributions in all three games.
Against the Seahawks, he made a late-game goal-line stuff of Marshawn Lynch that eventually led to Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception. Against the Falcons, his strip sack of Matt Ryan sparked the 28-3 comeback. Against the Rams, Hightower was a dominant force that helped hold Los Angeles’ potent offensive attack to just three points.
Hightower was named to New England’s All-Dynasty Team, which was selected by the Patriots Hall of Fame selection committee in 2020.
What Did Bill Belichick Think of Hightower?
Hightower’s head coach was very complimentary of the linebacker. Belichick dubbed him Mr. February due to his ability to make big plays in big games.
“It’s a stretch to compare almost anybody to Hightower,” he said in May. “You’re talking about one of the best linebackers that’s ever played here.”
So it’s hard to think of anything more that Hightower can achieve in his career. He will without a doubt be a Patriots Hall of Famer for his significant contributions in New England’s three Super Bowl wins during his time on the roster and as Belichick said, he is one of the best linebackers to ever wear a Patriots uniform.