Why Patriots look forward to having Dont'a Hightower's football mind back in 2021

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Mayo: Pats look forward to having Hightower's football mind back in 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Give Jerod Mayo credit.

He did say, "I'm not trying to toot my own horn here."

But he's friends with Dont'a Hightower. He's Hightower's position coach. He's Hightower's former teammate. And Hightower, in a way, reminds the Patriots inside linebackers coach of himself.

Not having Hightower on the team last year -- he'd opted out due to COVID concerns -- was significant, Mayo explained in a back-and-forth with reporters on Thursday. The coach-on-the-field the Patriots were accustomed to having in the middle of their defense, the role Mayo served during his career, was gone.

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"I'll be honest, it was huge," Mayo said. "It was kind of like -- and I'm not trying to toot my own horn here -- but it's like, the times that I wasn't hurt, I was kind of like a coach on the field. So having a guy like Hightower... At the end of the day, you can call the play, but as soon as you cross the white lines, those guys are in charge.

"Anytime you have a guy as smart as Hightower that's able to cross the white line, you feel comfortable. Like, this guy is going to make the right decision nine times out of 10. That's a very comforting feeling. I'm not saying that we didn't have that at times last year. But just getting it on a down-after-down basis is something we look forward to having this year."

Bill Belichick mentioned last week that he anticipated anyone still on the Patriots roster, which includes Hightower, would be playing for the team in 2021. Mayo saying the Patriots "look forward to having" Hightower this season seems to be as good an indication as any that the Patriots will in fact have the 31-year-old defensive leader back in the fold.

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And Mayo is anticipating Hightower's football mind will be as sharp as ever.

"I'll say this: Hightower's a true professional," Mayo added. "Obviously, opting out last year, hopefully we get the same Hightower we got in 2019, but we'll see... I'm not worried about Hightower mentally. He's one of the smartest players that I've been around, had the pleasure to coach. He knows all the X's and O's. He'll probably be a coach one day, honestly. This guy, he's very smart.

"The one thing you've got to be concerned about with a guy like that, you know, you're coming off a year of not playing football. Training camp and this period right now, these are times right now where you really want to see them get back into football shape. Then in the summertime when we get back, get back into that football shape. But I'm excited to get him back in the building. He's always a pleasure to have in the room.

"Honestly, when you look across the defense and all the new guys that we have, just having his presence, having Devin McCourty's presence, that stuff is definitely going to trickle down to the rest of the group. Not only talking about trickling down to the rookies. I'm talking about trickling down to the new players, the new free agents, the big name free agents that come into this organization, just to really figure out how we handle business here. So it's always good to get him back."

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Mayo has spoken in the past about the importance of this time of year for teams because it's when fundamentals are taught, when a team's culture is established (or re-established). For those reasons, not having a full complement of players -- the team was missing 25 players in a practice open to reporters last week, including Hightower and McCourty -- is less than ideal for coaches. 

But at least it's something.

"I will say this: It's better this year than it was last year," Mayo said. "Last year was very tough, where you really couldn't get to the fundamentals. You really couldn't start at square one and build a solid foundation that's going to carry you throughout the season. Just being back on the field with the guys has been definitely good for -- not only for them, but also for the coaches, just being about to lay that foundation."

And when the team is back on the field for mandatory minicamp later this month, it sounds like Hightower will be there. Given his importance to the overall operation defensively, there's no doubt he'll be a sight for sore eyes as far as Mayo and the rest of the coaching staff is concerned.