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Patriots’ questions at linebacker begin with Dont’a Hightower

Dont'a Hightower, who turns 31 next month, has not given any indication about whether he intends to play this year.
Dont'a Hightower, who turns 31 next month, has not given any indication about whether he intends to play this year.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Seventh in a position-by-position series

Three little words could have a huge impact on the Patriots’ front seven.

“I’m coming back.”

If Dont’a Hightower makes that announcement — there has been radio silence from his camp thus far —New England’s defense would receive a huge boost for 2021.

A Pro Bowl linebacker, Hightower was the highest-profile of the club’s league-high eight opt-outs last season, and his presence was missed in many areas.

Hightower’s return would give the Patriots their most important and versatile front-seven defender. He has tremendous knowledge of New England’s schemes and is an excellent communicator. He puts all the pieces in place presnap.

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Hightower turns 31 next month but proved in 2019 that he can still play at a high level, registering 71 tackles, including 5.5 sacks, en route to his second Pro Bowl invitation.

Versatility and clutch plays are Hightower’s hallmarks. He can play off the ball and on the edge, allowing him to be stout against the run and the pass; he takes time and space away from quarterbacks. For evidence of his big-play ability, pop in any of New England’s last three Super Bowl wins.

Though he was away from the team in 2020, Hightower stayed involved through social media (often encouraging his teammates) and group texts (offering tips), according to rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings, a fellow Alabama alum.

If Hightower comes back, his leadership could prove invaluable to young linebackers Jennings and Josh Uche.

A look at what predraft moves the Patriots could explore to fortify the second level of the defense.

The 2020 Patriots

Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, Brandon Copeland, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Terez Hall, Cassh Maluia.

▪ Bentley: A rugged, old-school thumper whose responsibilities on and off the field increased in 2020 — his first season as a captain — as he helped fill running lanes and the leadership void at the position. His roles will likely continue to increase.

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Shilique Calhoun celebrates after sacking Russell Wilson in a game last year against Seattle.
Shilique Calhoun celebrates after sacking Russell Wilson in a game last year against Seattle.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

▪ Calhoun: He started off strong, but injuries limited his snaps over the second half of the season. A free agent, he could return on another one-year deal.

▪ Copeland: Veteran looked like he had carved out a role during a strong camp, but his season was derailed by a torn pectoral muscle in October.

▪ Uche: Early injuries stunted his growth early, but his finish was strong. He possesses a lot of Hightower traits in that he can be slotted in multiple spots along the front seven. Will be used off the ball and as a pass rusher.

Could Josh Uche see more work in 2021?
Could Josh Uche see more work in 2021?Barry Chin/Globe Staff

▪ Jennings: Could be poised for a huge Year 2 leap. Another versatile player, he has showed promise as a run defender, situational pass rusher, and in coverage. He will punish tight ends at the snap. Along with Uche, he will be a building block for the next great Patriots defense.

▪ Hall: After a season and half of apprenticeship on the practice squad, he flashed over the final eight weeks, registering 40 tackles. Hall is quick and has a nose for the ball.

▪ Maluia: His rookie contributions were limited to special teams, but he could emerge after a year in the program.

The free agents

ILBs: Reggie Ragland, Raekwon McMillan, Reuben Foster, Calvin Munson; OLBs: Bud Dupree, Lavonte David, Olivier Vernon, Melvin Ingram.

▪ Ragland: A smart and swift read-and-react player who excelled in a part-time role in Detroit. Another Alabama alum, he could fit well in New England’s scheme as a player and mentor.

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▪ McMillan: An instinctive player, he underachieved in Las Vegas in 2020. A change of scenery and some new challenges could reignite his high-tempo motor.

▪ Foster: He comes with a ton of baggage (including drug and domestic violence arrests) and injury concerns (ACL and LCL tears in 2019). If he can return to form, he could be a bargain as he tries to resurrect a once-promising career.

▪ Munson: Another inexpensive option, the instinctive and tough Munson impressed during his time in New England before he was poached by the Dolphins.

Could Bud Dupree fit in Foxborough?
Could Bud Dupree fit in Foxborough?Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

▪ Dupree: Is coming off a late-season knee injury but could come in and be ready to contribute. The Steelers will make a push to re-sign this hard charger, especially if they don’t land J.J. Watt.

▪ David: Probably wants to stay with the Buccaneers, but Tom Brady can’t pay everybody. This guy is ultra-quick and can stack and shed blockers. Would instantly upgrade any unit.

▪ Vernon: It only feels like this dude has been around since the first Bush Administration. Vernon can still get off the edge and would excel in New England as a situational pass rusher.

▪ Ingram: He probably wants to stay with the Chargers, but can that franchise break the bank for another edge defender after paying Joey Bosa? He may have to take his quick first step and thundering hits elsewhere.

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The bottom line

It would be a big surprise if the Patriots handed big bags of money to any big-name linebackers, but they may have to if Hightower decides to hang ‘em up.

A final thought: If the Broncos decide to part ways with Von Miller — he has a $7 million guarantee option on an $18 million salary for 2021 due March 16 — that would change the free agent landscape. He has a motor like nobody’s business and could transition nicely to New England’s varied looks.

RELATED STORIES

Part 1: Who will be the Patriots’ quarterback? The trade, free-agent, and wild-card options

Part 2: Patriots remain deep at running back — when everyone is healthy, that is

Part 3: Where can the Patriots find a decent wide receiver? Running through the top free-agent options

Part 4: Are the Patriots finally going to be able to shore up the tight end position?

Part 5: Patriots’ first priority on offensive line could be re-signing David Andrews

Part 6: Patriots could overhaul defensive line, but Lawrence Guy should stay a big part of it


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.