FOXBOROUGH — Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower is not a rookie anymore.
The second-year pro should be one of the starters alongside Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. As such, Hightower is already considering himself a veteran in training camp.
“I feel a lot better than I did about my first one,” Hightower said of this year’s preseason. “I have a pretty good feeling how things are going to go this year as far as how to practice, how to watch film, things like that — things I thought I knew my rookie year, which I really didn’t know.
“I know more about that now. Just trying to step up and be more of a leader for some of the younger guys coming in. But aside from that, just still trying to be a sponge and learn from the older guys.”
The 6-foot-3-inch, 270-pound Hightower appeared in 14 games as a rookie, starting in 13. He missed two games because of a hamstring injury. Hightower, selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, recorded 60 tackles and four sacks.
More is expected of Hightower this season. Those expectations come from coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, and linebackers coach Pepper Johnson. But they also come from Hightower himself.
“To come out and play a lot better, play the way I’m capable of playing,” Hightower said of 2013. “Me being more comfortable with the playbook and the NFL flow now, I feel like I can be a little more productive, playing with a little more of a leadership role — knowing my role but trying to help everybody else as well.
“I feel good. I feel like I’ve done everything I could to better myself going into my second year this year.”
More work for Tebow
Following Wednesday’s injury to Tom Brady, it’s likely that Tim Tebow will see an increase in reps for the rest of the preseason. Tebow backed up Ryan Mallett after Brady left Wednesday’s practice.
“I think the big thing is just his familiarity with the offense, the way we do things — play calling, reads, formationing, just general things we do,” Belichick said. “The quarterback has to have a good understanding of all that.
“The more you do it, the more you get comfortable with it and the better you can execute it. I think that’s no different, really, than any other young quarterback or quarterback coming into a new system.”
Tebow turned 26 Wednesday.
Praise for Slater
It is no surprise to Belichick that Matthew Slater is a Pro Bowler and special teams captain. As New England’s primary gunner, Slater has the type of game that makes him one of the most effective special teams players in the NFL.
“Matt is one of the best in the league,” Belichick said. “I think he has a lot of the qualities we’re talking about. Any time they have to double somebody, that makes it one less guy they can use somewhere else in the return.
“He almost always draws two guys out there unless they’re in an eight-man rush. Most of the time there’s two guys out there — fourth and short, when they’re trying to protect the box — but he draws a lot of double teams, and deservedly so.
“He does an outstanding job of covering punts. It’s a tough position to play, but he’s got all the qualities we’ve talked about to be good.”
Clear bags only
Friday’s preseason game against Tampa Bay will be the first at Gillette Stadium since the NFL introduced its policy regarding personal items. Fans will be allowed to bring one clear bag into the stadium as well as a small clutch that can fit in the hand. The NFL Committee on Stadium Security unanimously approved the change in June.
The clear bag must be no larger than 12 inches by 12 inches by 6 inches, according to Jim Nolan, Patriots senior vice president of operations. Bags are available for purchase at the Patriots pro shop, at patriots.com, and in nearby parking lots. Bags have been distributed to season ticket-holders. A one-gallon freezer bag is also acceptable.
The clutch, which can be on a strap, must be no larger than 7 inches by 4 inches.
Fans who do not comply with the rule will not be allowed entry.
Belichick showed his satisfaction with his defense during seven-on-seven end zone drills. The Patriots kept Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and the No. 1 offense from scoring on several plays. After the drills, Belichick gave high-fives to cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan. “The first day, we were able to make some plays and get some things going,” Freeman said. “When you go back and turn it around overnight, you come back and they’re playing different. They’re playing different blockers, taking away different things, playing tighter with their man. You definitely learn a lot about yourselves, about getting off, fighting through. Toward the end, we needed to get things going. Overall, this is what it’s about. When things get hot, when you’re tired toward the end of a game or end of practice, you really have to lock in, stay sharp, and do your job.” . . . Punter Zoltan Mesko, who is facing competition from rookie Ryan Allen, had the better day. Mesko boomed several of his trademark cloud-ticklers during punt drills. Allen had one punt blocked . . . The Patriots and Buccaneers will hold their third and final joint practice Thursday afternoon. The practice will mark the official conclusion of training camp.