While the collective eyes of football fandom begin to fixate on the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft, the free agency is entering its final stages.
The New England Patriots have made some notable additions (cornerback Malcolm Butler, safety Jabrill Peppers, etc.) as well as suffering some significant losses (ie cornerback JC Jackson, guard Ted Karras) as they build their roster for 2022.
Still, some free agents remain on the open market.
Among the players yet to be signed by New England, or any other club, is – surprisingly – linebacker and team captain Dont’a Hightower.
Don’t Hightower Celebrates a Big Play
Hightower is no stranger to big moments against the Atlanta Falcons
Despite becoming an unrestricted free agent in mid-March, the 32-year-old has generated little interest in the ‘frenzy’ portion of early free agency. As such, Hightower has yet to visit other teams, and his contact with the Patriots has reportedly been limited.
However, it should be noted that interest in unsigned free agents is likely to grow following the draft. As teams begin to evaluate their pre-camp rosters, Hightower may find himself in demand once again.
Whether or not he will return the interest apparently remains in question.
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According to a recent report in The Athletic , Hightower is reportedly “still figuring out what he wants to do” before committing to play in his 11th season in the NFL; either in New England or with another franchise.
Hightower has been an essential part of the Patriots’ defense since his arrival in 2012 as a first-round draft selection. He is not only a prolific linebacker, but also a director of action on the field. He is also one of the most respected leaders in the Patriots locker room.
While he was, indeed, one of eight Patriots to opt-out of the 2020 season, (amidst concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic), his decision to do so was made with his family in mind, not his future on the gridiron. The opt-out allowed him to spend time with his family after the birth of his first son in late August, while protecting their health in the process.
“The opt-out was for  and that was , ”Hightower told reporters in the summer of 2021.“ All the rumors about retirement and stuff, y’all had me thinking somebody was trying to kick me out. But I did what I did for what I felt was better for my family. Obviously, I feel a little different with the situation I’m in now. But if I had to do it again, if I had to go back and do it I would absolutely do it again. It was literally just for the season. I wasn’t planning one, two steps ahead or anything like that. “
Bill Belichick and Jerod Mayo
Following a one-year hiatus in 2020 [via COVID-19 opt-out], Hightower returned to reprise his role as a team leader and solid presence in the middle of New England’s defense. He appeared in 16 of 18 possible games and saw the field for 59.8 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. Despite some struggles throughout the season, Hightower showed that he is still capable of being an effective player, finishing the season with 64 tackles and 1.5 sacks, primarily playing on early downs and defending against the run.
Though his place in Patriots history is firmly secured, Hightower may find himself on the opposite end of the Pats’ youth-and-speed movement heading into 2022. While a reunion certainly cannot be ruled out, a continuation of his football journey elsewhere in the upcoming season may be a genuine possibility.
Should he remain a free agent after May 2, Hightower will not count against the league’s compensatory draft picks formula, as outlined in the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargain Agreement.