By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Dont'a Hightower is entering his seventh season in the NFL with the New England Patriots. So he's clearly a veteran, and a leader of the defense. But he's also still on the right side of 30.
The transition from eager young linebacker looking to learn, to becoming the one doing the teaching, has happened pretty fast for Hightower. To the point where teammates are treating the 28-year-old like something of an elder statesman.
"They’re trying to get me a rocking chair in there, man," Hightower joked with reporters on Monday when asked about how quickly he became the "old guy" in the locker room. "I’m not that old."
Joking aside, Hightower's leadership on the defense is perhaps more important than ever entering the 2018 season. In a year where the defense's only fresh reinforcements at linebacker came in the form of two rookies, Hightower understands that he's going to have to be the one to bring those kids along.
Fortunately, it looks like the Patriots may have found some value with a pair of young linebackers in the 2018 draft. Particularly Ja'Whaun Bentley, a former three-year captain at Purdue who impressed as much as any defender in the Patriots' preseason-opening win over the Redskins.
"He’s a smart kid, eager to learn, fast learner," Hightower said of Bentley. "He’s a big kid, quick on his feet. He’s going to be a good ballplayer."
Hightower wasn't surprised to see Bentley's strong practices translate to an impressive debut last Thursday.
"The way he plays is the way he practices so he’s definitely one of the guys who literally takes the practice execution becomes game reality to that extent," said Hightower. "Like I said, he’s a young guy, he’s eager to learn, very smart in the classroom, always asking questions. I mean he can cover, he can do a little bit of everything.
"He’s still obviously got a ways to go being a rookie or whatever, but I mean every day he’s wanting to get better and that’s a great way to start."
Fellow rookie linebacker Christian Sam appears further behind Bentley in his development. But that doesn't mean the sixth-round pick out of Arizona State isn't learning. Hightower shed more light on a conversation he had with Sam while walking off the practice field after a recent session.
"He was just asking me about my transition my first year. Asking for a little advice," said Hightower. "That’s one thing that we’re good on this – not just this defense but this team – as wanting to help one another whether it’s young or old. We’re all able to learn from each other, from different techniques to different experiences and examples.
"I just kind of gave him my experience and how it was when I came in and the older guys I had with [Niko] Koutouvides, [Brandon] Spikes and [Jerod] Mayo and just how that transition from OTAs to training camp to preseason – how all that stuff kind of affects you. Sam’s a good kid, he’s obviously good at learning and willing to ask those extra questions so you know anything I can do for those young boys and I guess I’m the old head."
If the Patriots can have a player with Hightower's leadership qualities and wealth of experience whose still in his physical prime, maybe the linebacker position isn't as big a question mark as it looks entering the season.
However, the health of the linebacker spot, as it usually does, depends on the health of its captain. Hightower has proven to be a difference-maker whenever he's on the field, but he's also missed 22 games in the past four seasons with various injuries. He's optimistic that the approach he's taken so far will keep him more durable throughout 2018.
"I felt good last week, feel good this week," he said. "Just going to continue to stay what I’m on as far as my rehab. Massages, acupuncture and all that good stuff. Try to keep a routine and hopefully it will hold me solid over."
Even if the captain has to miss more time during the season, his rookie understudies give hope that they'd be better off than they were a year ago.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].