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Dont’a Hightower practices with Patriots for first time since 2019 season

Dont'a Hightower has played eight seasons for the Patriots but sat out last year.
Dont'a Hightower has played eight seasons for the Patriots but sat out last year.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — It was veterans day at the Patriots OTA practice Thursday, with several of the club’s established leaders making their first appearance of the spring in a session open to the media.

Perennial captain Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Adrian Phillips, and J.C. Jackson were among those on hand as the team geared up for next week’s mandatory minicamp.

Expected starters Matt Judon and Trent Brown also made their debuts, as 75 players in all participated to some degree.

Hightower was a full-go in his return to action; this was his first practice since the 2019 season after he opted out of last season. He appeared a bit leaner (granted, players did not wear pads) and plenty quick as he maneuvered his way around the front seven and helped put his teammates in their proper places.

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“I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet him before today, but you guys know what he brings,” said second-year defensive back Myles Bryant. “He’s been around here for a long time. What he brings on and off the field and just having him in the locker room, it does wonders for the team.”

Hightower is front and center in a remade linebacking corps that also features the return of Kyle Van Noy (from the Dolphins) and the arrivals of Judon and Raekwon McMillan. In addition, the club has Ja’Whaun Bentley and sophomores Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

Thursday offered a tantalizing taste of the versatility this crew should be able to offer. The Patriots employ their linebackers in a number of schemes and sub packages, and being able to serve in multiple roles is the key to success.

Hightower, Van Noy, Judon, and Uche stood out at several points during the practice and likely would have registered a number of sacks. This could be New England’s scariest bunch of pass rushers in a number of seasons (apologies to the Boogiemen of years past).

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Taking attendance

As expected, Cam Newton (hand) was not at practice, though Bill Belichick gave a positive prognosis on his starting quarterback.

“He’s doing all right,” said the coach. “He’s getting better.”

Also not spotted: running backs Brandon Bolden, Sony Michel, and James White; receivers Nelson Agholor and Devin Smith; tight end Jonnu Smith; offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn; defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Byron Cowart; defensive end Rashod Berry; linebacker Terez Hall; cornerback Stephon Gilmore; and kicker Nick Folk.

Rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson and wide receiver N’Keal Harry were back participating after missing last week’s session that media attended.

Preseason planning

Belichick said joint practices with preseason opponents remain a possibility, while Giants coach Joe Judge took it a step further, telling reporters the two teams are finalizing plans to hold the sessions, which would be in Foxborough, despite the game being in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, Aug. 29 at 6 p.m.

Judge said the teams could enter into an agreement to flip-flop practice venues every season, with practices being held at the opposite site of the game.

“That’s the plan now,” said Judge. “With the change in the preseason schedule [reduced to three games], both organizations thought it’d be a good idea to be able to exchange a little bit year by year.”

Some observations

Jarrett Stidham completed 11 of 14 passes in team work, while Brian Hoyer was 11 of 13, and Mac Jones was 6 of 8 with a sack.

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▪ The majority of Stidham and Jones’s throws were of the short or intermediate variety, while Hoyer aired it out a few times.

▪ Jones had to re-huddle the offense at one point, prompting a defender to yell, “Offense, do a lap!” They did not.

▪ Jones revealed after practice that Newton has dubbed him “Mac and Cheese.’’

Mac Jones has a new nickname, courtesy of Cam Newton.
Mac Jones has a new nickname, courtesy of Cam Newton.Steven Senne/Associated Press

▪ Uche’s speed off the edge is eye-catching. The linebacker did run a penalty lap for jumping offside once.

▪ Play of the day (offense): Kendrick Bourne made a nifty, leaping fingertip catch on a sideline throw from Hoyer. As a runner-up, Hunter Henry stretched the defense and hauled in a deep pass from Hoyer.

▪ Play of the day (defense): Jalen Mills (wearing the padded oven mitts, which train players to avoid holding calls) broke up a Stidham pass intended for Gunner Olszewski. Runner-up: Deatrich Wise destroying a screen play, resulting in a Jones incompletion.

▪ Olszewski’s mullet is nearing midseason form.

Troy Brown has been working with the receivers and even ran some routes at half-speed to help get his points across. Brown worked with the running backs last season, though it looks as though Vinnie Sunseri is assisting Ivan Fears with that this spring.

Jerod Mayo ran the linebackers through several coverage drills.

Cam Achord burns some serious calories while coaching up his coverage units, often charging down the field to emphasize his points.

Robert Kraft was up for the start of practice and intently watched an early round of quarterback drills. He gave a fist-bump to rookie receiver Tre Nixon after one catch.

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Ernie Adams was once again in attendance.

▪ The 90-minute practice ended with the players running the hills.


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