FOXBORO - Rookie Dont'a Hightower finally got a linebacker's number Monday, and it's a good one.
Hightower, the second of two first-round draft picks for the Patriots in April, will don No. 54 for the regular-season opener Sunday in Nashville against the Tennessee Titans (1 p.m.; Ch. 4, 12). It's the number that was worn from 1996 to 2008 by Tedy Bruschi.
Bruschi, it should be noted, also made the swap from 45, which he wore in his first preseason, to 54 just before his first regular season began.
In the NFL, linebackers must wear numbers in the 50s or 90s to conform with the league's numbering conventions, although rookie or free-agent linebackers are often issued numbers in the 40s during training camp when the rosters are larger.
The Patriots have a bit of a shortage of numbers in the 50s, as the numbers 56 and 57 have been retired. The number 56 was worn by Andre Tippett, a recent addition to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it had not been re-issued to another player after Tippett's retirement in 1993. Linebacker Steve Nelson wore 57 from 1974-87, and it was retired when he was added to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 1993.
Recently, Patriots' management has considered stronger criteria for the retirement of numbers or abandoning the practice altogether. Enshrined players' numbers are displayed in The Hall at Patriot Place, but numbers may be kept active for current players and some of the retired numbers may even be reactivated as shortages occur in some of the position groups.
Hightower's number change has added significance, in that it was worn last season by offensive guard Brian Waters - and the re-issue of the number to a linebacker may be a sign that Waters is not returning to the team.
The veteran guard had worn No. 54 for 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, and had received the blessings of Bruschi - now a football analyst for ESPN - to wear the number last year. Waters has been carried on the Patriots' reserve/did not report list through this training camp, and Patriots' coach Bill Belichick gave no indication Monday that Waters was any closer to returning to the team.
"He's not on the roster," Belichick said. "He's either an active player or he's not an active player, and he's not an active player. I don't really have anything more to add to the situation."
Matt Tennant, the center from Boston College claimed off waivers on Saturday, has been issued No. 69. It's doubtful he'll be ready to play Sunday against the Titans - Ryan Wendell appears to have won the center's job with Dan Connolly playing in Waters' right guard slot - but Belichick said he expects the former New Orleans Saint to make a quick transition.
"He's been here and he's working at it," Belichick said. "The players are off Tuesday, so that will give him a day to catch up. I think some of the things that they did in New Orleans are similar to what we did, but I'm sure there are plenty of differences, too.
"But he's a smart guy, and he's got some experience in the league," he added. "We'll give it to him, and see how quickly he can grasp it."