Six Tuesday Patriots Thoughts: Hightower’s Retirement, Harris Landing in Buffalo Stings
Some thoughts on this Tuesday:
1) According to multiple reports, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower has announced his retirement, ending an incredible run by the veteran linebacker.
Hightower made the announcement in a post in The Players Tribune, writing that it’s “a happy day” for him, and that he’s “totally at peace knowing that I gave this franchise every ounce of sweat I had left.”
The former 2012 first-round pick (25th overall) out of Alabama had some terrific moments during his Patriots tenure, with Hightower’s tackle of Marshawn Lynch during New England’s improbable win against the Seahawks being one of the most memorable.
His play set the stage for Malcolm Butler’s incredible game-sealing interception, and Hightower talked about what was going through his mind in that moment.
“When I look at that first ring, I think about the Marshawn tackle,” wrote Hightower. “When I saw Seattle line up in that I-form, I knew Beast Mode was getting it, and I knew they’d been gashing us with that strong-side lead all game. I knew he was going to walk through a huge hole if I didn’t take a risk. It’s funny how things come full circle, because when I was at Alabama, Kirby Smart used to always tell us, “Never ever go behind a block unless you’re sure you’re going to make a play.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure. But I figured we had nothing to lose. So I ripped up under Okung and shot my shot. All I saw was Marshawn’s two legs churning, and I just prayed to God that I could clip him up or something. I reached out … and you already know what happened next.”
“When they lined up for the Malcolm Butler interception, I was thinking the same thing as everybody else in the world: Marshawn is getting the rock. When they snapped the ball, I took one step into the hole, ready to unleash everything I had on him. Then I saw Russ turn to throw it.”
“When I saw Malcolm running out the endzone with the ball, I was screaming, “Get down! Get down, bro!!!” We jumped in the dogpile, and everyone was screaming, “We did it!!! We did it!!!”
Best wishes to Hightower, who certainly gave Patriots fans plenty of great memories.
Harris Shuffles Off to Buffalo
2) Monday night saw an interesting transaction as New England Patriots free agent running back Damien Harris quietly left the club, which wasn’t exactly unexpected.
However, where he ended up certainly was a frustrating surprise.
According to several reports, Harris signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills, allowing the Bills to acquire a player who had previously been a nuisance to them.
He was a key part in New England’s win in 2021 where the Patriots rushed the football a total of 46 times for 222 yards during a monsoon in Buffalo, with Harris carrying 10 times for 111-yards along with a season long 64-yard touchdown during the victory. He also put up 103 yards on 18 carries along with three touchdowns two weeks later in a loss to the Bills.
For a team that just lost Devin Singletary to free agency, Harris gives them a tough inside runner who doesn’t go down on first contact and, as much as people would like to dismiss his loss, it still creates a difficult match-up New England will need to deal with at least twice next season.
The writing was on the wall for Harris last season. (PHOTO: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
Writing Was on the Wall for Harris
3) Harris’ departure likely will also have an impact in the locker room. Harris and Mac Jones played together at Alabama, and the two were close friends, so this is Jones’s first taste of the tough business that is the NFL.
However it’s not like he couldn’t see it coming. The Patriots weren’t exactly subtle in looking to phase Harris out of the offense. It was obvious that Rhamondre Stevenson’s stock grew substantially in 2021, but the club drafted both Pierre Strong Jr. and Kevin Harris last offseason, stocking their stable of backs seemingly in anticipation of Harris’s final season. They also weren’t shy about how they transitioned the majority of the workload over to Stevenson as the season went on, with Harris’ role diminishing.
Harris started the first five games of the season, and from there, Stevenson essentially took over. The former standout from Oklahoma played in 60% of the snaps in 12 of the final 16 games, finishing with 1040 yards on 210 carries along with 5 touchdowns, as well as ending up with the team lead in receptions with 69 catches for 421-yards and one receiving touchdown.
2022 SNAP COUNTS:
As a result, it was clear that the writing was on the wall, and when Harris tweaked his hamstring midseason, he seemed to take his time coming back from it, likely knowing there was no point in pushing it.
He missed four games over the final six weeks of the season, sitting out the home game against the Bills, along with the club’s west-coast trip against the Cardinals and Raiders, as well as New England’s battle against the Bengals.
Now he’ll spend the next few months getting ready to help a Bills team that suddenly has yet another player who will likely help them continue to be a thorn in the Patriots’ side within the Division.
Robinson Appears to Be a Good Fit
4) The signing of James Robinson last week essentially closed the door for Harris, with Robinson providing the club with both a strong runner and a player who is also a solid pass-catcher, which was a strength that Harris seemed to lack.
The club shifted away from a dedicated third-down back last season, and the plan seems to be to try and have running backs who are dual threats as hard runners and adept in the passing game, which opens up a bit more unpredictability moving forward.
That’s where Robinson comes in. The former New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars back has certainly shown some potential, having rushed for over 1,000 yards just two seasons ago, along with rushing for nearly 800 yards a season later while averaging over 4 yards per carry down in Jacksonville.
He’s certainly got some big shoes to fill, as Harris gave the Patriots a solid one-two punch with Stevenson, which was arguably one of the more difficult duos in the league the last two years.
With Stevenson leading the way, Robinson should at least provide some decent depth to hopefully lighten his workload. The next question will be who emerges on the depth chart, with both Strong and Kevin Harris as potential role players. Strong was the fastest running back in the draft last offseason and showed flashes of what he can do when he gets the ball in space, which should be fun to watch while Harris started off slow but did have some good moments down the stretch.
Either way, with Damien Harris landing in Buffalo, he presents an additional problem his now-former teammates will have to deal with for at least 2023.
McCourty recently said the locker room was split on Jones/Zappe in 2022. (PHOTO:Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)
McCourty: Locker Room Was Split on Jones and Zappe
5) Devin McCourty’s recent comments about just how tough things were in the locker room last season were certainly eye-opening, with McCourty revealing that there were some players seemingly divided when it came to the Patriots’ quarterback situation.
In his Sunday column, Mike Reiss noted a curious point by McCourty from his recent appearance on WEEI where he talked about how there were some players who were somewhat split between Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe last season.
“I think player-wise there was enough trust that we’re going to put the best guy out there,” said McCourty. “But the struggles on offense, I think there were some guys in the locker room that were like ‘Let’s go with [Bailey] Zappe.’ Or ‘No, Mac looked good today.’ It was just a back-and-forth, which to me, spoke more about what we had on offense than the quarterback. We never were solidified as an offensive group that guys had full confidence in anything we were doing. There was never true hope.”
His comments were definitely interesting, and it gave a look into just how helpless players felt watching the offense last season.
With Bill O’Brien now in the fold and the additions of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki, the team has a pretty decent group to work with and it should provide the offense with some solid weapons to potentially turn things around.
Whether or not they add any additional pieces still remains to be seen, but either way, hopefully, 2023 will garner better results.
2023 A Critical Year For Mac Jones?
6) For Mac Jones, it’s clearly a big year for him. Coming off a difficult 2022, how he develops on the field, both as a player and a leader, is going to be critical.
One of Jones’s biggest knocks coming out of college was how he handled his emotions on the field, which was something that got out of hand going all the way back to last preseason. While things certainly weren’t great, their issues were exacerbated by his outbursts, and those also seemed to ultimately draw some frustration from Bill Belichick.
Belichick went from singing Jones’s praises last preseason to calling him a “capable” NFL quarterback in his final press conference of the year and hasn’t given him much of a ringing endorsement since the start of last season. Whether or not that situation drove a wedge between the two has been the talk within the media since the season ended, and it’s going to be interesting to see if that wound can be closed over this offseason.
Having someone Jones is confident in calling the plays is definitely a great start, given as there never appeared to be the same trust with Matt Patricia as he had with Josh McDaniels. Now the only question is going to be whether that translates into more success than he had last season, which is obviously the same thing the rest of us will be looking for in the coming months.
It’s definitely safe to say that this is going to be one of the most critical offseasons of Belichick’s tenure and with a young team that still has plenty of question marks, it’s safe to say he’s got his work cut out for him as he continues trying to rebound from a difficult 8-9 campaign last season.
Posted Under: Patriots News
Tags: Bill Belichick Bill O'Brien Buffalo Bills Damien Harris Dont'a Hightower James Robinson Kevin Harris Mac Jones Malcolm Butler New England Patriots Pierre Strong Jr. Rhamondre Stevenson