FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who were key players at the heart of the New England Patriots' defense in 2016, are opening training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list.
Hightower is coming back from an undisclosed physical ailment that kept him off the practice field in voluntary spring practices. A defensive captain who is one of the NFL's hardest-hitting players at his position, he was seen working on a different field with others who aren't yet fully cleared to practice. Still, whatever is holding him back wasn't considered serious enough to stop the Patriots from signing him to a four-year extension this offseason with a base value of $35.5 million and more than $17 million in guaranteed money.
Meanwhile, Branch was the lone player on the Patriots' roster who didn't attend voluntary practices in the spring. When he returned to town for the team's mandatory minicamp in June, the coaching staff kept him out of practice. Instead, Branch worked on a different field with a group that included Hightower.
Branch, 32, who at one point last season was called the team's most consistent defensive tackle by coach Bill Belichick, re-signed with the Patriots this offseason. His two-year pact included $3 million in guaranteed money. The deal also includes $400,000 in weight bonuses, which reflects an incentive for Branch to maintain a desired weight. In 2016, Branch opened training camp on the non-football injury list.
In addition, undrafted free-agent offensive tackle Andrew Jelks of Vanderbilt is opening training camp on the active/non-football injury list.
Hightower, Branch and Jelks can be removed from the active/PUP and active/NFI lists at any time.
Rookies reported to camp Monday, and veterans will report Wednesday, with the first practice scheduled for Thursday morning.