Mike Pellegrino

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.

Latest On Bill Belichick’s Patriots Future

As we get closer to Black Monday, the job status of Bill Belichick will continue to command headlines. While it’s still uncertain if the legendary coach will stick in New England, it sounds like rival teams are preparing for a divorce.

According to Josina Anderson, there are “teams within the NFC South” that have “potential” interest in Belichick. Considering the Panthers’ midseason coaching change, the organization has been loosely connected to Belichick. Mike Jurecki of Arizona Football Daily confirms that Carolina “has always been an option.”

However, there haven’t been any previous rumblings of a pursuit by the Buccaneers, Saints, nor Falcons. Each of those teams’ head coaches could be at risk of losing their jobs, so it’s hard to definitively point to any one team based on Anderson’s report.

It sounds like it isn’t just rival teams that are anticipating a break up. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, some Patriots staff members are “bracing for change.” As a result, these individuals “have begun examining outside opportunities out of necessity,” a hint that Robert Kraft and co. could make sweeping changes to the organization.

Andrew Callahan and Doug Kyed of the Boston Herald recently explored what led up to this point in New England. Following a dismal showing from the offense in 2022, there was hope in New England that replacing Matt Patricia with Bill O’Brien would solve some of the issues. However, Belichick was a proponent of sticking with Patricia, and while O’Brien tried to clean house on the offensive coaching staff, the head coach denied the request. This led to a divide on the offensive coaching staff, and the new OC had clear frustrations with the WR and OL coaches.

It sounds like those frustrations were shared by the assistant coaches, although they weren’t necessarily targeted at O’Brien. A source told Callahan and Kyed that newly-hired offensive line coach Adrian Klemm “confronted” director of player personnel Matt Groh “in a loud exchange” earlier this season. Klemm would later take a leave of absence, resulting in assistant coach Billy Yates and veteran OL James Ferentz leading the unit. Per the Boston Herald, Klemm isn’t expected to be back with the Patriots next season.

There were also issues among players. Cornerback Jack Jones “blew up” at position coach Mike Pellegrino after not starting the Germany game, leading to the player’s release, according to the Herald. Meanwhile, offensive lineman Trent Brown reportedly spoke openly about leaving for an NFC team this upcoming offseason.

Ultimately, sources believe Belichick’s “personnel control and inability to assemble a functional staff” led to his demise in New England. Still, these sources stressed that players continued to play hard for their head coach, and there’s a belief that he “hasn’t lost his fastball as a hands-on coach.” We’ll soon learn if Kraft feels the same way.

Bill Belichick Expected To Call Patriots’ Defensive Plays?

Nearly two months after Greg Schiano backtracked on his commitment to become the Patriots’ defensive coordinator, the job remains unfilled. Should it stay vacant, the Pats would have a fairly reliable contingency plan.

With Bill Belichick towering over his defensive staff in terms of NFL experience, the current expectation is he will call defensive plays for the Patriots this season, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe notes.

Ceding that responsibility to Matt Patricia and Brian Flores for the past several years, Belichick obviously played a key role in the Pats’ defense. Belichick would often determine when Patricia or Flores would call blitzes, Volin adds. The eight-time Super Bowl champion, counting his two as Giants DC, is coming off perhaps the Super Bowl’s defensive masterpiece — the Rams’ three-point night — and his teams have fielded a top-10 scoring defense 15 times in his 19-year New England tenure.

However, Belichick in a dual role is not the Pats’ official plan just yet. They will use the OTAs and minicamp period to determine their strategy here, Mike Garafolo of NFL.com notes (video link). Flores’ exit leaves the Patriots light on experience among their defensive staff, with former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema — previously viewed as a DC option — bringing the most seasoning. And most of that came in college.

After a year of consulting with the team, Bielema is slated to coach New England’s defensive line. Jerod Mayo, whom Garafolo adds is viewed as a possible future defensive coordinator, will split linebackers coaching duties with DeMarcus Covington — with Mayo working with the inside ‘backers and Covington assigned to help the outside players. Mike Pellegrino will oversee the cornerbacks, the team announced. Mayo, Covington and Pellegrino will be first-year position coaches.

Barring an outside hire, or the Patriots handing the reins to Bielema, Belichick would seem the logical choice to play the lead role on defense.