On Monday the New England Patriots issued rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower the jersey number 54. The number had previously been worn by star linebacker Tedy Bruschi and most recently offensive guard Brian Waters. This is a sign that after four months of waiting, the Patriots are finally moving on without Waters.
After the team’s Super Bowl loss, Waters announced that he was considering retirement. Soon after, a source close to Waters said that he was intending on playing in 2012 but that he wanted to move closer to his Texas home. As training camp started for the Patriots, Waters was nowhere to be seen. At that point the team gave the veteran guard an excused absence from team activities meaning that he would be able miss time without the punishment of a fine.
The Patriots went further than just an excused absence. They left his number 54 and his locker in Gillette Stadium unoccupied throughout the four months that he missed. By all indications, the team was waiting for the six-time Pro Bowler to return to action. It seemed that because of a lack of depth on the offensive line, Waters was getting preferential treatment from head coach Bill Belichick.
It’s easy to see why the team would want Waters back. At the beginning of the offseason tackle Matt Light announced his retirement after eleven years starting for the Patriots. Then starters Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer sat out the majority of camp with injuries. Without four starters from 2011 the line that protects the most important player on the team, quarterback Tom Brady, was looking shaky. Even though Mankins and Vollmer have now returned, two of last year’s starters are still not around and second-year tackle Nate Solder has not looked as solid as the coaching staff would hope.
Waters could still decide to return but with the team giving Hightower the number 54, it looks as though the New England Patriots are looking toward 2012 without him. The team’s offensive line will be younger and much less experienced which could create a cause for concern. But the Patriots seem like they’re finally ready to come to terms with the loss of their star offensive lineman.