Dont'a Hightower off PUP list, practicing with team

Nancy Lane / Boston Herald

Linebacker Dont'a Hightower signed a four-year, $44 million extension over the offseason to remain with the Patriots. But as good as he's been when he's on the field, the former first-round pick has struggled with shoulder and knee ailments over his five years in the league. Thankfully, he looks to be healthy and will be active for the 2017 season opener on September 8 after the team removed him from the PUP list today.

Hightower practiced in pads today with the rest of the team after passing his physical earlier. His return couldn't come at a better time--after top draft pick Derek Rivers tore his ACL this past week, the depth chart at edge rusher has suddenly become perilously top-heavy. And while Hightower will serve primarily as a traditional middle linebacker, he's also one of the best edge-rushing mikes in the league (a talent that was on full display during Super Bowl LI). If he can remain healthy, the 2016 All-Pro might be able to alleviate that depth issue in situational packages.

But even if the Pats don't deploy Hightower as a rusher, having him back will be a huge boon. The Alabama standout has been the quarterback of Matt Patricia's defensive unit for years, and he's one of the most critical pieces to New England's scheme. While the team has depth at the outside linebacker positions and in coverage, there's nobody that can replace the impact the 6'3", 265-pound Alabama product has at the center of the scheme. With him ready to go for the start of the year, the Pats defense figures to be among the league's best once again.

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