On Wednesday, the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots would be without Hightower for Sunday’s game vs. the Chargers. On Thursday, multiple reports emerged showing Hightower’s prognosis was worse, and that he’d miss the rest of the season.
Hightower was hurt in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons while tackling running back Devonta Freeman with 3:04 left in the third quarter. He remained down briefly after the play, clearly in pain, but he stayed in for the next snap, a running play in his direction. Hightower then came off the field for the remainder of the game and watched from the sideline.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Hightower had missed games in the second and third week of this season with a knee injury sustained in the third quarter of the season opener. Upon his return, he was used in a part-time role, playing 37 snaps in an Oct. 1 loss to the Carolina Panthers, before seeing his workload increase to 62 and 69 snaps, respectively, over the next two games.
He has been credited with 14 tackles and two sacks this season.
In his absence, the Patriots have Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, David Harris, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly on their off-the-line linebacker depth chart. Roberts missed Sunday’s win over Atlanta with an ankle injury.
Four-year veteran Van Noy, who has played 95.3 percent of the defensive snaps, has played the most snaps at linebacker for the Patriots this season. The team also has second-year player Roberts (38.3 percent), 11-year veteran Harris (5.5 percent) and special-teams contributors Flowers (5.1 percent) and Reilly (promoted from practice squad Wednesday) at the position.
Six-year veteran Shea McClellin, who opened the year on injured reserve, is eligible to return to action Nov. 12 against the Denver Broncos and should elevate to the upper parts of the depth chart quickly.
Hightower was one of the top unrestricted free agents this past offseason, and after taking visits to the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, he returned to the Patriots on a four-year contract that included a $10 million signing bonus. In part because he had been in and out of the lineup due to injuries, the deal included per-game roster bonuses of $54,687, which is a higher figure than the norm.
A defensive captain, Hightower’s versatility to play an off-the-line linebacker role, or on the line at the end of the line scrimmage is valued by the coaching staff. His knowledge of the defensive scheme and experience was cited by players as having a calming effect on the unit.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss contributed to this report.