Dont’a Hightower

Patriots Gave Bill O’Brien Chance To Stay; Latest On Team’s Coaching Staff

Bill O’Brien‘s second stint with the Patriots ended after one season. The Pats’ 2023 offensive coordinator has since committed to both Ohio State and Boston College, becoming the ACC program’s head coach after initially pledging to be the Buckeyes’ OC.

With O’Brien set to replace Jeff Hafley as Boston College’s HC, he not do so after being booted from the Patriots. The veteran coach said he was given an opportunity to stay on under Jerod Mayo. A number of Bill Belichick assistants are still in place, including Brian Belichick, but O’Brien is now back in the college ranks.

[RELATED: Patriots Promote DeMarcus Covington To DC]

I definitely had an opportunity to stay,” O’Brien said (via’s Mike Kadlick). “I thought it was really important for coach Mayo to hire his own staff. I came and worked for Bill Belichick, and I think it’s really important for Jerod to be able to hire his own staff. The Krafts were great about that, and I really appreciate that. And Ryan Day was awesome about offering me a job, so that’s why I made that decision.”

Robert Kraft played a key role in bringing O’Brien back to Foxborough. A rumor pegged Belichick as remaining interested in keeping Matt Patricia on as the Patriots’ de facto OC. But O’Brien — the Pats’ OC in 2011, closing out a multiyear play-calling stint with the team — brought extensive experience on the offensive side. This led Patricia to Philadelphia. O’Brien committed to Ohio State on Jan. 18. The Packers hired Hafley on Jan. 31. Days later, O’Brien agreed to come back to Boston.

A January report indicated the Pats were not planning to run it back with O’Brien as OC; he would have needed to vie for the job as part of a search. O’Brien took his name out of consideration early. After a thorough search, the Patriots ended up with ex-Browns OC Alex Van Pelt, who has one season of play-calling experience. But Van Pelt represents a new voice in a building still filled with Belichick assistants.

Mayo having only worked for the Patriots led to some concerns about his ability to fill out a staff, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe notes. This helps explain why Eliot Wolf, who is believed to be the team’s new front office boss, was involved in coaching searches and why a few ex-Packers assistants are part of Mayo’s first staff. Wolf was a regular presence in coaching interviews during this hiring period. He and Van Pelt overlapped as Packers staffers from 2012-17.

Ben McAdoo is another ex-Packers assistant who is now with the Patriots. The former Giants HC and Van Pelt worked together in Green Bay from 2012-13, a stay that ended with McAdoo as QBs coach and Van Pelt as running backs coach. After the Giants hired McAdoo as their OC in 2014, Van Pelt — a longtime NFL backup QB — shifted over to become Aaron Rodgers‘ position coach. While McAdoo will now work for Van Pelt, Volin adds he hold the title of senior offensive assistant in New England.

Additionally, the Patriots will split up their linebacking coach role. Dont’a Hightower will coach the team’s outside ‘backers, per Volin. Drew Wilkins is overseeing the ILBs. This will allow Hightower a smoother path into the coaching ranks. The standout Patriot has not held a full-time coaching job previously.

The Pats are also hiring Taylor Embree as their running backs coach, according to the Boston Herald’s Doug Kyed. Embree, 35, spent the past three years coaching the Jets’ running backs. The team dismissed the former Mike LaFleur hire earlier this offseason. The son of Dolphins TEs coach/ex-Colorado HC Jon Embree, Taylor had been a lower-level staffer under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. The Jets gig marked the 35-year-old assistant’s first position coach role in the NFL.

Patriots tight ends coach Will Lawing is on track to follow O’Brien to Boston College,’s Pete Thamel tweets. This is not exactly surprising, as Lawing has worked with O’Brien for more than 10 years. Lawing followed O’Brien to Penn State, the Texans, Alabama and then the Patriots.

Patriots Hire Dont’a Hightower As LBs Coach

The trend of former players turning to coaching after their playing careers end continued today with former Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower getting hired to coach his former team’s linebackers group, according to his agents at SportsTrust Advisors. ESPN’s Mike Reiss posted that the hiring seemed to complete the main coaching hires on the defensive side of the ball, indicating that cornerbacks coach Mike Pellegrino would be returning to coach the position in 2024.

Hightower was a 2012 first-round addition out of Alabama for the Patriots back in 2012. An immediate starter, Hightower performed at a high level for the entirety of his ten-year career, all of which saw him play in red, white, and blue. The two-time Pro Bowler’s only big issue throughout his career was durability. Throughout his time in New England, he only appeared in every game of a season once and missed 11 games in 2017 due to a torn pectoral muscle. He also was one of the few NFL players who opted out of the 2020 season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hightower would return for the 2021 season and, after going unsigned in 2022, would retire in 2023. Hightower finished his career with 569 total tackles, 43 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, two forced fumbles, and five fumble recoveries. He hit the quarterback 67 times, intercepted them once, and deflected 18 passes over his career.

Hightower will return to the NFL as a coach for the only team he ever played for, joining his former teammate, and new head coach, Jerod Mayo. With former defensive line coach DeMarcus Covington taking over as defensive coordinator, Hightower is joining new defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, returning safeties coach Brian Belichick, and Pellegrino as the position coaches on the defensive staff. This should conclude the major hires on this side of the ball, though minor roles may still be filled.

Speaking of a minor coaching role, New England is reportedly finalizing a deal to bring in former Panthers assistant offensive line coach Robert Kugler, per Mike Giardi of the Boston Sports Journal. Kugler is a hot name in coaching circles who is viewed as a possible candidate for offensive coordinator jobs in the not-too-distant future.

Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower Retires

On the day of the press conference for one longtime Patriot defender’s retirement, another veteran member of the unit has officially ended his career. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower announced in a Players’ Tribune article that he has retired after nine seasons played in the NFL, all with New England.

[RELATED: S Devin McCourty Retires]

The 33-year-old joined the team as a first-round pick after a decorated college career. He won a pair of national championships at Alabama, raising expectations for him at the pro level. He established himself as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign and remained a key member of the Patriots’ defense throughout his career with the team.

Hightower amassed 117 regular season games in New England, playing a versatile role at the second level of the teams’ defense. He never totaled more than six sacks or 97 tackles in a single campaign, but remained a consistent producer through his final season in 2021. He earned Pro Bowl nods in 2016 and 2019, as well as second-team All-Pro honors in the former season.

A noted playoff performer, Hightower was a member of three Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams. The highlights of his postseason career in include the tackle on Marshawn Lynch which set up the Seahawks’ now-infamous goal line interception in Super Bowl XLIX and the strip-sack which helped the Patriots’ historic comeback in Super Bowl LI.. Overall, Hightower totaled 81 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in 17 playoff contests.

“Today, I’m totally at peace knowing that I gave this franchise every ounce of sweat I had left,” Hightower wrote. The Lewisburg, Tennessee native played on his rookie contract and then a four-year, $35.5MM pact after his first and only foray into free agency. New England remained open to the possibility of Hightower continuing his career with them, but he was sidelined for the 2022 campaign. He totaled just over $52MM in career earnings.

After acknowledging support from his family, teammates, fans and the Patriots organization, Hightower concluded his announcement by simply adding, “thank you. Just thank you. I wouldn’t rewrite a single chapter of this story.”

Patriots Open To Dont’a Hightower Return?

Dont’a Hightower‘s previous free agency bid (2017) produced a bidding war, but the accomplished linebacker’s second stint on the market has been much quieter. The three-time Super Bowl champion has not been closely connected to a team in the nearly three months since his second Patriots contract expired.

But New England did not use a draft choice on a linebacker. The team appears open to another Hightower deal. The Pats would welcome back Hightower “with open arms” if he wants to play a 10th NFL season, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe (subscription required). The nine-year veteran has not decided on playing again. If he does opt to, it would be his age-32 campaign.

The versatile off-ball linebacker has slowed down some, as could be expected, and played 59% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last season — his lowest usage since his 2012 rookie year. Pro Football Focus assigned the Alabama product the lowest grade of his career. But the former first-round pick has delivered versatility and, excepting 2017, durability for the Pats, who have questions at this position.

New England re-signed linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, who moved into a regular role during Hightower’s COVID-19 opt-out two years ago. The Pats were able to bring Bentley back on just a two-year, $6MM deal. Hightower played out a four-year, $35.5MM pact — one that became a five-year commitment after Hightower’s contract tolled to 2021 following the opt-out decision — but would not command as much now.

The Patriots have shown they are willing to retain aging defenders — as evidenced by Devin McCourty‘s one-year, $9MM accord — and have frequently reunited with defensive cogs at reduced rates. Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler all made Foxborough returns since 2021.

Beyond Bentley, the Pats have trade acquisition Mack Wilson, 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings, 2021 fifth-rounder Cameron McGrone and former Dolphins starter Raekwon McMillan. None of the latter trio played a snap in 2021, with McMillan coming off a season-nullifying ACL tear. Josh Uche figures to join Bentley as a key presence, though the former second-round pick likely stands to contribute often as an edge rusher. The Pats cut Van Noy, who joined Hightower in being an off-ball ‘backer also used as a pass rusher, earlier this year. Adding a veteran presence would not be the worst idea here.

Inside Linebacker Market

There are many inside linebackers waiting patiently on the open market. A wild first week of free agency has come and gone with other positions seeing record deals and big names moving. The market for inside linebackers, however, has been quiet and less than lucrative.

In years past, we’ve seen monster deals to players like C.J. Mosley, whose contract has an average annual value of $17MM and guaranteed him $43MM at signing, and Darius Leonard, whose contract has an average annual value of $19.7MM and guaranteed him $33MM at signing. The largest payout we’ve seen this offseason to an inside linebacker was when the Packers kept De’Vondre Campbell from entering free agency with a five-year, $50MM deal, with a guaranteed $15MM. It’s certainly an impressive deal, and one the esteemed linebacker deserves, but no other deals have come close.

After being cut by the Jaguars, Myles Jack signed a two-year, $16MM deal to become a Steeler. Josey Jewell remained with the Broncos after signing a two-year, $11MM deal. Minnesota’s new inside linebacker, Jordan Hicks, joined the Vikings on a two-year, $10MM contract. Christian Kirksey signed a similar deal to remain with the Texans. We’ve seen a few other small deals like Zaire Franklin signing a three-year, $10MM deal to remain in Indianapolis and Alex Anzalone signing a one-year, $2.25MM contract to play another year with the Lions.

While that may sound pretty active, there are many big names who have yet to find deals. The biggest of these names is Bobby Wagner. Cut after ten outstanding years in Seattle, Wagner was expected to be a highly sought after free agent. While there have been many teams who’ve voiced interest in the eight-time All-Pro, there has been no word of negotiations. Any deal Wagner signs will likely top the numbers posed by Campbell and the Packers, but the fact that he has yet to find a home may hint at the fact that the money he’s looking for isn’t being offered.

There are many other impact names on the open market: Kwon Alexander, Jayon Brown, Jarrad Davis, Dont’a Hightower, Anthony Hitchens, Nick Kwiatkoski, Reggie Ragland, Joe Schobert, and Danny Trevathan.

Due to the low spending we’ve seen thus far and the plethora of names available, these players will likely have to search for the right fit and accept a decent deal if offered. They may end up having to wait until injuries provide an opportunity for them to fill in on a roster. The exception, of course, is Wagner, who can afford to be patient. Wagner will have the luxury of being able to wait and see how rosters form throughout the league, biding his time until he’s sure he’s joining a contender. Look for the others to give up on looking for a lucrative payday and settle for decent deals from teams with schemes they like.

Patriots Notes: Newton, Gilmore, Hightower

Shortly after the Patriots drafted Mac Jones in the first round, head coach Bill Belichick came out and said Cam Newton would remain the team’s starter until he was unseated. While a lot of coaches might express similar sentiments with respect to their veterans and not really mean it, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe writes that he doesn’t think “that’s just lip service” from Belichick. Newton didn’t play well in 2020, but he also had a poor supporting cast and Belichick seems to be genuinely fond of him. Volin believes that “the Patriots’ quarterback job is Newton’s until he gets hurt or is clearly holding the team back.”

He adds that at a “minimum” he doesn’t think the team will want Jones to “have to deal with the pressure of playing against Tom Brady in the big return game in Week 4.” Volin highlights the week after their Week 11 Thursday night game against Atlanta as a good time to potentially make the switch. We’ve previously heard that the Patriots are going to hold a true open competition in training camp between Newton and Jones, but Volin seems to think the vet is a somewhat heavy favorite in that battle. If Jones flashes in the preseason that could change things in a hurry.

Here’s more from New England as they look to bounce back from a rough 2020:

  • Last week Stephon Gilmore confirmed he isn’t happy with his current contract, saying “I just want what I’m worth,” but also said he wouldn’t be demanding a trade. Gilmore said he hoped his camp and the team could “find common ground” and get something done, and Mike Reiss of has an idea of what that might look like. Rather than outright adding guaranteed millions to his existing $7MM salary for 2021, “adding easily-earned incentives to Gilmore’s contract would fall most closely in line with the Patriots’ approach” in recent years, Reiss writes. He highlights how the team added millions in incentives to Rob Gronkowski and Brady’s contracts from 2017-18 to make their compensation more in-line with their market value as a potential blueprint. Reiss thinks the Pats would be more inclined to add incentives for this season rather than do a long-term extension because of concerns about their 2022 salary cap situation, as well as Gilmore’s relatively advanced age (31 in September).
  • Gilmore might not be the only member of this Patriots defense to have contract drama coming up. Star linebacker Dont’a Hightower opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, and is set to make $8.725MM with another $2MM in incentives available when he makes his return this season. Volin writes that his “hunch” is that Hightower is “worried about the Patriots asking him to take a pay cut.” Hightower turned 31 in March, and obviously hasn’t played since the 2019 season. He did make the Pro Bowl that year and has been a leader in New England for a while, but the Pats have never gotten too sentimental in the past. Gilmore is getting most of the attention, but it sounds like this could be another situation to monitor.

Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower On Retirement Rumors

Despite speculation to the contrary, Patriots veteran Dont’a Hightower says he never considered retiring this offseason (via Chris Mason of Mass Live). After opting out of the 2020 season, the linebacker says it’s all systems go for 2021.

I don’t know what y’all want for me to say, man. I’m here. I’m working. I’m in minicamp, bruh. I’m not here to write a story for you, dawg,” Hightower said. “I’m here to work, man. I’m here. I don’t know what else y’all want me to say. If I wasn’t here, then I think that would be something to talk about. But I’m here. Hopefully that knocks all those questions out.”

Hightower was one of several Patriots players to opt out last year. But, as he reminded reporters, he did so to protect his 2-week-old son.

Hightower was slated to make $8MM in base salary, his would-be walk year. March. Now, his contract has tolled, putting him on course for free agency next spring.

The 31-year-old has been a staple in the Patriots’ starting lineup since entering the league in 2012. Injuries aside – including a mostly lost 2017 – he’s served as the club’s locker room leader and the point guard of the defense. In 2019, the off-ball ‘backer earned his second Pro Bowl trip and even managed 5.5 sacks from the middle.

Needless to say, the Pats are happy to have him back in the fold this year. He’ll return to his place in the starting lineup alongside Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Patriots Notes: Hightower, Chung, Cannon

The Patriots had eight players opt out of the 2020 campaign, the most in the NFL. The organization will naturally welcome back a handful of these players, but Jeff Howe of The Athletic writes that others may have already played their final game in a Patriots uniform.

For keepers, Dont’a Hightower seems like a guarantee to come back. Besides the two-time Pro Bowler’s on-field production, the Patriots would save only $9.95MM by releasing the 30-year-old; the organization wouldn’t be able to sign a player of Hightower’s caliber with that kind of money. It’s a similar sentiment for safety Patrick Chung. The team would only save $1MM by cutting the veteran, and Chung could still have a role on defense alongside the likes of Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips.

As for lesser names, Howe opines that running back/special teams ace Brandon Bolden will likely be back in 2021. The team would save $1.5MM by cutting the 31-year-old, but the organization clearly values his special teams ability. Elsewhere, fullback Danny Vitale ($1.2MM savings) will compete with Jakob Johnson for the starting gig, while tight end Matt LaCosse ($1.3MM) will compete for the third tight end spot. Both of those players’ roster spots are dependent on the camp competition.

One name that could be on his way out of New England is Marcus Cannon. The team could save $7MM by cutting the veteran, who already showed signs of decline in 2018 and 2019. The organization also appears to have their long-term answer at right tackle in Michael Onwenu. On the flip side, Onwenu could also be an option at left guard, which could carve a path to a roster spot for Cannon. Either way, Howe believes the Patriots will ask Cannon to take a pay cut.

Two other names that are probably long shots to stick around: wideout Marqise Lee ($687K savings) and offensive lineman Najee Toran ($780K). Howe says Lee could stick around as a reclamation project, but the reporter is confident Toran probably won’t make the team.

AFC East Notes: Saleh, Darnold, Patriots, Bills

Robert Saleh signed his contract with the Jets today, making him the 20th head coach in franchise history. While speaking to the media, the former 49ers defensive coordinator indicated that he’d be looking for specific types of players as he helps general manager Joe Douglas fill out the roster.

“There are no shortcuts to success, and I am committed to working with Joe to build this team the right way: with talented players that play fast and smart, and a staff that supports and helps develop them through it all,” Saleh said (via the team website).

Douglas, who led the coaching search alongside included team president Hymie Elhai, noted that Saleh believes in many of the same principals that the executive brought with him from Philadelphia when he joined the Jets in 2019.

“We spoke to some tremendous coaches, but Rob is the right partner and leader for us,” Douglas said. “His vision for this team aligns with what we have been working to establish here the last two years.”

The 41-year-old Saleh was an early favorite for the job based on the strength of his SF defense. In 2020, the Niners finished fifth in total yards, seventh in rushing yards, and fourth in passing yards allowed. In 2019, Saleh’s D surrendered just 169.2 passing yards per contest — the lowest average since Rex Ryan‘s 2009 Jets D.

Let’s check out some more notes from around the AFC East…

  • Saleh and new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur have spent time evaluating Sam Darnold‘s tape, and the coaches believe the Jets quarterback has “untapped potential,” per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. The former third-overall pick had a rough season in 2020, leading some to wonder whether the new staff would prefer to take a quarterback with the second-overall pick.
  • The eight Patriots players who opted out of the 2020 season were asked to return for year-end physicals last week, writes ESPN’s Mike Reiss. Wideout Marqise Lee and running back Brandon Bolden have both said they plan to play in 2021, and Reiss opines that safety Patrick Chung, tight end Matt LaCosse, and fullback Danny Vitale will also return. However, the writer is much less certain that offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be back in New England.
  • While Dave Ziegler was always an underdog in the Broncos GM search, he parlayed that experience into a “multiyear contract and pay bump as Nick Caserio‘s successor” in New England, writes Reiss. The Patriots assistant director of player personnel eventually withdrew his name from the search in Denver, and Reiss writes that this is a “reflection of the decisiveness that has earned him a measure of respect in the Patriots’ offices over the past eight year.”
  • Bills running back Zack Moss underwent minor surgery on his ankle this morning, tweets ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The 23-year-old is expected to make a full recovery from the “tight rope procedure,” and he should be ready to go for offseason workouts. The third-rounder finished his rookie campaign having compiled 576 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.

Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower To Opt Out Of 2020 Season

Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower will opt out of the 2020 season, as Ian Rapoport of tweets. Hightower wrestled with the decision, but ultimately decided to skip the season in order to protect his 2-week-old son. 

Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football — especially the new addition to our family,” Hightower explained.

With that, Hightower becomes the fifth Patriots player to opt out. Running back Brandon Bolden, right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback Danny Vitale, and guard Najee Toran have also decided against playing. Hightower is the highest profile player of the Pats bunch, and one of the more notable players league-wide to opt out.

Hightower was slated to make $8MM in base salary before reaching free agency in March. Now, his contract will toll, with that final year being moved to 2021. With Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts out of the picture, the Patriots were counting on Hightower to hold down the fort at linebacker. There aren’t a ton of impact off-ball linebackers left on the open market, so the Patriots will likely have to work with what they have on hand.

Hightower, 30, has been a staple in the Patriots’ starting lineup since entering the league in 2012. Injuries aside – including a mostly lost 2017 – he’s served as the club’s locker room leader and the point guard of the defense. Last year, Hightower earned his second Pro Bowl trip and even managed 5.5 sacks from the middle.

Hightower’s opt-out falls under the “voluntary” label, meaning that he’s entitled to a $150K salary advance (likely negated by his 2020 earnings to date). Cannon, meanwhile, is “higher risk,” which means he’ll get a $350K stipend (Twitter link via’s Tom Pelissero). Cannon had two years to go on his current deal with a total of $9.5MM in base pay. His contract will also toll, with his 2020 season being bumped up to 2021.