FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — If there was a positive aspect to all the season-ending injuries the New England Patriots defense suffered in 2013 – losing stalwarts such as defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo in span of three weeks – it was that some of the team’s younger players were thrust into pivotal roles.

Such as linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower led the Patriots with 137 tackles in 2013, and the Patriots overcame their injuries to advance to the AFC championship game for a third consecutive year. But that was just a preview of what was to come.

In his third year since the Patriots drafted him in the first round out of Alabama in 2012, the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Hightower has earned an expanded role, and the Patriots are now using all his skills.

He is playing outside linebacker, taking on blockers against the run, rushing the passer, dropping into to zone coverage or covering running backs man-to-man.

“(Things) are coming a lot faster,” said Hightower. “I’m able to have a little more on my plate; that’s how I want it.”

This is what the Patriots envisioned when they selected Hightower with the 25th pick of the 2012 draft. He played both outside and inside linebacker for the Crimson Tide.

“Well, we saw him as a versatile player and we’ve used him like that,” said Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. “So, I would say it’s not really a big surprise. I think the big thing for a player like Dont’a is his ability to play on third down, his ability to cover and rush the passer, which gives your defense a lot of flexibility. He’s a guy that you really want on the field on third down for the number of different things he can do.”

Going into Monday night’s game at Kansas City, Hightower is second on the team in tackles with 18 (11 behind Mayo).

He has two sacks – one more than last year – for minus-22 yards and four quarterback hits, one fewer than last year. He also has defended one pass. In 2013, he defended only three passes.

Veterans on the team see great promise in both Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones, who was taken four picks ahead of Hightower in the 2012 draft.

“They’re great talents,” said Rob Ninkovich, who plays outside linebacker and defensive end opposite Jones. “Hightower … for him, there’s no top on his growth. I think he can continue to just get better and better.

“For a guy who’s 270, he can cover, rush and stop the run. You don’t meet those guys every day.”

Hightower has always had those abilities. He was an All-America selection at Alabama in 2011 and a finalist for three prestigious college football honors – the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Vince Lombardi awards.

The difference this year might be his maturity. And he says he owes that to how much he played in 2013.

After Wilfork and Mayo were lost to the defense, Hightower’s playing time increased significantly.

“It just helped force me to step up a little bit, a lot, not having those two big anchors who had been there for a long time,” he said. “It all helped me in the situation that we were in. It’s not usually like that. I mean, sometimes we get those reps at practice where you pull a couple of starters. It made me grow up a lot faster and more into a leader.”

Hightower’s versatility can cause problems for any offense trying to prepare for New England’s defense.

“I’m able to rush, to drop, to cover, (play) zone, (play man-to-man), doing a lot,” said Hightower. “Whenever I’m doing that, the offense doesn’t know if I’m dropping or if I’m covering or rushing or what’s going on. So that opens up spaces for everybody else. If they’re zeroing in on what I’m doing, somebody else on the other side is getting a sack, or getting a pick. I mean, they don’t know the coverage or what’s going on.”

All that work is making football fun – and not just for Hightower.

“Any time you can go out there and get the sacks and the (tackles for losses) and the tackles, it’s going to be fun,” he said. “I mean, it’s not just fun because I’m doing it. To see (Jones) block a kick and run it back, to see Devin (McCourty) read and get picks, it’s just fun for our defense.”

The defense will need to be at its best Monday night if the Patriots want to improve to 3-1 after an opening loss to Miami. Kansas City has an explosive offense, with fast and big-play players. Running back Jamaal Charles might not play because of an injury, but Knile Davis is more than capable of filling in for him. Donnie Avery, Travis Kelce and Dwayne Bowe are very good receivers, and Alex Smith is a heady quarterback.

“The first thing you see is speed,” said Hightower. “You look at their depth chart, just their running backs … Charles, Knile Davis, all those guys are sub-4.4, 4.5 (40-yard dash) guys. That’s a lot of speed.”

As well as the Patriots have played defensively – allowing just one touchdown and 16 points in the last two games – they need to maintain that edge against the Chiefs.

“We’re on the right track, we’ve had two really good weeks,” said Hightower. “We’re just trying to keep stringing them together.”