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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — To the surprise of some, the New England Patriots didn’t select a linebacker until the fifth round of the NFL draft, and also didn’t sign a linebacker in free agency.

The trickle-down effect is that they will be relying on captain Dont’a Hightower, more than ever, to return to form after missing the second half of the 2017 season and playoffs with a torn pectoral muscle.

“I always say, when you have good players out there and guys that have a ton of experience, you always miss him. Last year, we had to learn how to play without him, so now you add him back; I think everyone around him was forced to get better last year, so you hope in turn that makes us a better team this year,” said safety and fellow captain Devin McCourty. “He’s been able to come back in there and not miss a beat. Hopefully we just keep him out there and continue to improve.”

Dont’a Hightower comments on the absences of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer ago

Without Hightower, the Patriots relied on a linebacker group headlined by Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Marquis Flowers, which also has been the primary grouping in organized team activities. Hightower has yet to get full clearance.

While Hightower isn’t full-go, his presence is still hard to miss — as a leader and in drills. A big part of OTAs is communication, and that’s a Hightower specialty.

Hightower communicated with reporters on the practice field Thursday for the first time since his return, saying it felt good to get his feet back under him. He also relayed that it hurt being hurt.

“It just goes to show you’re one play away from missing. You’re used to missing a couple games and being able to fight through it, but [last] year I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “So I’m trying to take every measure I can to prevent that from happening again.”

Hightower noted that will include “a lot of preventative work throughout the season.”

“I just know that I feel great right now; I’m moving around; I’m not having any problems,” he said, adding that the true test will be when there are full-pads practices because “7-on-7 is for receivers and DBs, and that’s not my thing.”

Hightower, who has also battled knee injuries in the past, had time to explore things he wouldn’t have without his pectoral injury.

“It made me sit down and talk to [Dr. James] Andrews and a lot of guys that I work with in the offseason as far as preventive matters to help strengthen those small ligament things that a lot of guys have a problem with, whether it’s rolling an ankle or spraining an AC joint or something,” he said.

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