FOXBOROUGH — Dont’a Hightower isn’t around the Patriots this season, though the perennial captain’s presence still looms large in the organization.
Hightower, who opted out of the season after recently welcoming a child, roots for his teammates via social media and group texts and has taken rookie Anfernee Jennings under his virtual wing.
The linebackers have many connections, including their Alabama pedigrees and the versatility to play on and off the ball.
Jennings said Friday he’s been studying film of Hightower going back to the three-time champ’s time in Tuscaloosa — “Man, he’s on every teach tape at Alabama, so it’s kind of hard not to see him,” Jennings said with a smile.
Now the tables have turned, with Hightower watching Patriots games and then checking in with Jennings to offer advice and teaching points.
“We talk all the time,” said Jennings, who played a season-high 28 snaps last Sunday against the Broncos. “He kind of watches the game and kind of gives me some feedback on what I should have done or could do better and stuff like that. Just trying to be another tool for me to continue to learn and grow [from] and understand the game. Still trying to be a sponge and soak it all up and I’m always looking to get better.”
The Patriots have a long tradition of versatile front seven defenders and Jennings said he watches tape of former Patriots Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich, among others, to continue to build on his base.
"We go back and we pick film from probably before I was born, and watch it and just whatever we can pick from their type of game and try to apply it to our game and just really understanding that a lot of great linebackers played here before me and just trying to soak it all in and just continue to the legacy of special linebackers,” he said.
Being able to slot into different roles along the front seven as Jennings has is no easy task, especially for a young player.
“It’s really hard to play one, and to play both takes a good level of instinctiveness and both mental and physical versatility because the skillsets are quite different between playing off the ball and only a few inches away from a good blocking tight end or a good receiving tight end,” Bill Belichick said. “So, those are challenges. Jennings did both those things at Alabama. He also is a very, very good communicator and signal-caller and had roles on third down, as well.
“So, he had quite a bit on his plate in college, and I think that the volume of what he has now is certainly manageable, maybe a little bit more. But, he’s a good football player with, as I said, some versatility and ability to do some different things. We’ll continue to try to see where he fits in our defensive scheme and game plan on a weekly basis.”
Growing up in the Bay Area, Julian Edelman was a huge 49ers fan and Friday revealed that his dogs were named “Dwight” and “Montana.” His first youth team was the Redwood City 49ers and that’s when he developed his love for the game.
“In the beginning part of me playing football was for a 49er team and it’s definitely pretty cool to be able to play them,” he said. “This isn’t my first time, but it’s always a pretty special kind of game just because all my friends back home, my family, we were all diehard Niners fans and any time you get to see that red and gold, it’s special. So, it’s a pretty cool experience. I’m looking forward to doing it and going out and getting to play against a very good 49er football team.”
Edelman is No. 2 on the all-time list with 118 postseason receptions. His idol, 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, tops the ticket with 151.
“I would definitely say Jerry Rice has been a huge inspiration on me as a football player and [for his]work ethic,” said Edelman.
James White returned to practice Friday after missing back-to-back sessions for noninjury-related reasons and that likely means the running back is good to go for Sunday … Center James Ferentz (COVID-19 reserve) and defensive tackle Carl Davis (concussion) were the only players not spotted during the media window. Davis is out for Sunday … Edelman (knee), Shaq Mason (calf), Adam Butler (shoulder), Kyle Dugger (ankle), and Derek Rivers (back) were listed as limited at practice and questionable for Sunday … The 49ers officially designated running back Raheem Mostert (ankle) as out. Additionally, San Francisco will be without starting safeties Jimmie Ward (quadriceps) and Jaquiski Tartt (groin) … The Patriots worked out guards Cordel Iwuagwu and Jordan Steckler, fullback Roosevelt Nix, and receiver Damion Willis.