Thin at DE, Patriots might be ready to turn to Dont'a Hightower

Dont'a Hightower could help solve the Patriots' depth problem at defensive end. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the New England Patriots selected Dont'a Hightower in the first round of the 2012 draft (No. 25 overall), the Alabama alum was viewed by some teams as a "tweener" who could be a linebacker or defensive end depending on the scheme a team employed.

The Patriots have primarily used Hightower as an off-the-line linebacker in recent years, while moving him to the line of scrimmage in an end-of-the-line role in certain situations (e.g. his strip sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI).

With the Patriots thin at the position, could a more permanent move to the edge be in Hightower's future?

If warm-ups in practice are any indication, the answer could be yes, as Hightower continued to work on his pass-rush moves with fellow ends Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Geneo Grissom & Co.

The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Hightower could help ease the void created by Rob Ninkovich's retirement, rookie Derek Rivers' torn ACL, and the release of Kony Ealy, whom the Patriots had acquired in an offseason trade that didn't produce the desired results. Or he could simply provide some depth on their roster, which Bill Belichick said is something the club annually tries to do at this time of year.

Hightower's early work with defensive ends was one of the notable developments at the media portion of Monday's practice, which was the team's first workout since Julian Edelman sustained a season-ending torn right ACL.

In addition to Hightower's early-session work with defensive ends, the return of running back Rex Burkhead indicated that the undisclosed ailment that kept him out of practice last week, as well as Friday's preseason game, wasn't anything overly serious. The return of special-teams captain Matthew Slater, who had injured his hamstring early in training camp, also stood out.

As for absences, receiver Malcolm Mitchell (knee) remains out, as does linebacker Shea McClellin (undisclosed). Mitchell's absence takes on added importance with the team's plans to adjust without Edelman. Mitchell has been in and out of practice after an offseason in which he didn't practice at all in the spring and was brought along slowly at the start of training camp.

Also, starting left tackle Nate Solder wasn't present at the start of practice after having made a return last week, but he had arrived for the workout after reporters departed.