Dont’a Hightower, left, Matt Judon and Josh Uche are at the top of a deep group of linebackers that should help the Patriots improve from a dismal 2020. Steven Senne/Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass — Last year, the New England Patriots defense had 24 sacks, the lowest single-season total of the Bill Belichick era.

Fast forward, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see this defense match that number by November. Veteran linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy have returned to New England, flanked by two teammates who could elevate the defense to an entirely new level in 2021.

Edge rushers Matt Judon and Josh Uche have been among the five most impressive Patriots in training camp, with Uche averaging almost a sack per practice. A year ago, Uche would simulate Judon on the Pats’ scout-team defense before a game against Baltimore, when Judon was en route to his second Pro Bowl selection.

Now, Uche is taking tips from him.

“We talked about Judon being this chess piece, this versatile guy who do a lot of different things and bring a lot of versatility to the defense,” Uche remembered Friday. “So ever since then, I started watching more of his game and just seeing how fluid of a pass rusher he is.”

In 2019, the Patriots ranked second in turnovers, collected 47 sacks and finished with a top-10 pressure rating. Like that front seven, these Patriots boast loads of experience and versatility, including free-agent nose tackle Davon Godchaux, who’s arrived after playing under former New England assistant Brian Flores in Miami.

“From getting corrections to installments, the way (inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo) explains things, we’re able to pick it up pretty quick. And we’re able to move along things at a little more 2.0ish (level), I guess,” Hightower said Thursday. “Being on the field, a play breaks down, it’s real good for us to be able to look at one other and know ‘That’s my bad, I have to press the guard harder. Or slow down on that. Or alert for this stuff.’

“So being able to do that stuff inside a series is good, because a good offensive coordinator is going to hit you up on that a few times. If we’re able to fix things like that, or little minor corrections on the sideline, that helps everybody.”

Beyond their collective knowledge, the Patriots’ front-seven depth and talent have been evident this summer, with last year’s sack leader, Chase Winovich, now coming off the bench in a reserve role. So how good can this year’s defense be?

Said Van Noy: “This group is talented and special just because we push each other. A lot of competition. Can’t have everybody on the field, so it’s good to compete with each other and make each other better. … It’s going pretty good.”’

PRACTICE REPORT: New rookie cornerback Shaun Wade, acquired in a trade with the Ravens on Thursday afternoon, was present wearing the No. 26 in a red, noncontact jersey.

Center David Andrews and wide receiver Gunner Olszewski were missing at Friday’s practice, the team’s last of training camp. Andrews left Thursday’s joint session with the Giants early because of an apparent injury. Olszewski completed practice Thursday, but did not speak to the media as originally scheduled.

Tight end Hunter Henry, running back Brandon Bolden and defensive back Myles Bryant also wore noncontact jerseys. Defensive back Jonathan Jones was present for stretching after he hurt his leg in Thursday’s practice.

JOE JUDGE, when he was the special teams coordinator for the Patriots, might have taken the hill for granted. The slope at the back of the practice field where players do conditioning runs is a staple of workouts in Foxborough.

Now as the head coach of the New York Giants, Judge had his players run the hill during their joint practices with the Patriots in Foxborough.

“I think it’s a great tool. It’s a great way of conditioning your players, but it’s a great way of conditioning your player safely,” Judge said. “One thing the hill does with the incline is it actually protects the lower extremities with the soft tissue injuries, so it’s an ability of really pushing your players when they’re tired in training them to build in the conditioning without really exposing them to something dangerous.”

Belichick had a hill in Cleveland when he was the head coach there, too.

“That’s a training technique that’s been used for quite a while. I had a hill in Cleveland. Ran hills as a player. Ran hills where there were hills, and it has certain training benefits,” Belichick said. “There are multiple ways to train, but that gives you certain benefits, and when that’s combined with other things, other methods of training, I think it just helps build the overall conditioning of the athletes. There are multiple ways of training on a hill, but ultimately there are a lot of different conditioning factors that a team needs, and I think that that helps us prepare in some areas, not all.”

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