View images from Patriots OTA practice at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, May 26, 2016.
Most consider Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower to be a budding star and the leader in the middle of a New England defense that's as respected now as it's been since the Super Bowl-winning heyday of the early 2000s.
Heading into the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, Hightower is well established as the man in the middle of the defense, a unit that ranked in the top 10 in both yards and points allowed last fall.
But soaked in sweat as he addressed the gathered media following the Patriots OTA session on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, Hightower sounded anything but an established playmaker and leader.
Rather, the former first-round pick and would-be 2017 free agent uttered the phrase "get better" 17 times in an interview session that lasted barely more than three minutes.
"I'm just glad to be out here and get better with my teammates," Hightower said, regarding how he felt with his past experiences as he heads into his fifth season.
The "get better" word pairing was clearly his go-to answer, regardless of whether it came in response to questions about the team missing now-retired former All-Pro linebacker Jerod Mayo or whether the bitter end to last season in the AFC title game in Denver was being used as fuel heading toward a new year.
One of the few topics that didn't get the generic response was in regards to the weather, with the first practice that was open to the media this spring taking place in bright sun and temperatures in the high 80s. Despite the heat, Hightower wore full-length sleeves layered under his jersey.
"Just part of not trying to get too dark," the linebacker joked.
A topic he wasn't looking to joke about or even really address was his contract situation. Along with fellow linebacker Jamie Collins and cornerback Malolm Butler, Hightower is one of New England's key defenders seemingly in line for potential lucrative, long term contract extensions that many have expected to come this offseason or at least prior to the end of the regular season.
"I ain't got nothing to do with none of that," Hightower said before returning to his phrase of the day. "I'm just out here trying to get better with my teammates."
Reminded that it's his future and his desire to remain in Foxborough is something that is under his control, Hightower again preferred to focus on the practice-field task at hand.
"That might be it. There is a time and place for everything and right now, I'm just out here trying to get better," Hightower reiterated.
The reality is that Hightower is arguably the Patriots best, most important all-around defensive player. But in true New England fashion he's also focused on what he can do to get better, coming off a year in which he missed four games to injury.
If he achieves that goal, and he's certainly getting an early start working in that direction, it will be a win-win for all involved and his financial situation will take care of itself.
"If I get better I feel like that will take care of everything else. If I get better every day that's all I can ask for," Hightower concluded.