Mr. February is returning to Foxborough.
Dont’a Hightower, who earned that nickname from Bill Belichick for his penchant for making momentous plays in Super Bowls, is one of three veterans returning to the Patriots after opting out of last season, according to a report.
NFL Media is reporting that Hightower, a Pro Bowl linebacker, along with safety Patrick Chung and right tackle Marcus Cannon, will return after sitting out 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns.
Hightower became a father for the first time in 2020, and Chung for the second time, while Cannon is a cancer survivor, having beaten non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his rookie season in 2011. All three are three-time Super Bowl champions.
Belichick labeled Hightower “Mr. February” during the team’s ring celebration following the win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII following the 2018 season.
While all three veterans were missed in 2020, Hightower’s absence was particularly noticeable as New England’s front seven struggled to consistently stop the run and pressure the pocket — two of the perennial captain’s strengths.
The Patriots linebacker corps underwent an overhaul in 2020 with regulars Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts leaving via free agency.
One of the smartest, most versatile, and underrated three-down linebackers in the league, Hightower is exceptionally well-versed in Belichick’s defensive schemes and is responsible for making the on-field calls.
Chung, who told the Globe during the season that he planned to continue playing, has a reputation as a hard hitter, and serves in multiple roles across the defense. He also has earned high praise from Belichick.
“The guy is a really good football player,” the coach said in 2018. “He’s one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team. He does a lot of things very well and has done them that way for a long time.”
A massive man with quickness and light feet, the 6-foot-6-inch, 335-pound Cannon has been pretty much a mainstay at right tackle since midway through the 2015 season. He will push and be pushed by several young players in the position group this summer.
New England had a league-high eight players opt out last season, including running back Brandon Bolden, fullback Danny Vitale, tight end Matt LaCosse, receiver Marqise Lee, and offensive lineman Najee Toran.