NEPD Editor: Doug Kyed
The Patriots added seven players this weekend during the NFL Draft. I can understand having positive or negative feelings on six of them, but not one.
You have to love the selection of Dont’a Hightower.
Recently while talking to my co-workers about how the Patriots fared in the draft, I compared Hightower to a current Patriots player, though it may not be an obvious choice.
You could compare Hightower to various former Pats players. I’ve seen comparisons to Mike Vrabel and I’ve made comparisons to Adalius Thomas. Those are two players who have proven they can play inside, and also rush from the outside when asked to. The difference is that Vrabel and Thomas were “natural” pass rushers who were asked to kick inside when forced to. Hightower is the opposite, he’s a natural inside linebacker who can rush from the outside when necessary, either standing up or with his hand in the dirt.
If you wanted to compare Hightower to a current Patriots defensive player, I’d say he’s a very rich man’s Dane Fletcher. Fletcher can play inside or out, he’s an underrated pass rusher, and he can cover, but struggles in man. Fletcher has also been known to put his hand in the dirt as an interior lineman, but in those situations he’ll typically (always) drop back into coverage. Sounds a lot like our new linebacker.
Those are all fine comparisons, but the one I immediately thought of was an offensive player. Dont’a Hightower can be the Aaron Hernandez of the defense.
Opposing defenses always have to be on edge when Hernandez is on the field, which at this point is nearly every snap. Hernandez can line up out wide as a split end, he can line up in line as a tight end, he can line up as a joker, an H-Back, a fullback, a halfback, in the slot, he can run the ball, catch the ball, run block, and very rarely, pass block. He’s the player that is almost impossible to account for. If the Patriots have three WRs, Gronk and Hernandez on the field, you’d assume a passing play was coming. But since Hernandez can also run the ball out of the backfield, you can never be entirely sure.
With Hightower on the field, similar deception can be employed. Hightower can be used at SILB, WOLB and SOLB in a 3-4, and MLB, SLB and DE in a 4-3 alignment. In nickel and sub packages, he can play linebacker in a zone cover role and he can rush standing up or with his hand down. Since we’ve seen it from Fletcher, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Hightower line up at DT at least once as well.
I’m certainly not saying that offenses preparing for Hightower will be like defenses preparing for Hernandez, but it is similar. Offenses won’t know where Hightower is coming from, or whether he’s blitzing at all, dropping back in coverage, setting the edge, etc.
Hightower’s size/speed combo is part of what allows him to have so much versatility. He’s 6-2/265 and ran a 4.68 40 at the combine. His versatility allows the Patriots to throw out a number of different defensive sets and personnel and it allows there to always be an extra experienced blitzer on the field when necessary.
What the Patriots typically employed last season was a hybrid 3-4/4-3. The alignment was Love at the nose, Wilfork and Shaun Ellis/Brandon Deaderick at 5-tech and Andre Carter in an elephant DE/OLB role. Mayo was at WLB/WILB, Spikes at MLB/SILB and Ninkovich at SLB/SOLB. Hightower will likely switch between that Ninkovich role and Spikes role depending on the situation. He could likely also fill that elephant role, but it’s more likely we’ll see Chandler Jones/Jake Bequette fill it.
Hightower may not have been the best player in the draft, but he was among the best fits for the Patriots. Belichick really seems to value run defense more and more lately, despite the league becoming more of a passing league. I think Hightower can be extremely valuable against the run and pass. He’s a thumper-linebacker in the mold of Brandon Spikes who has no problem fighting through blocks to get into the backfield and stop the run. He also knows how to fill his gaps inside and set the edge. Vs. the pass, he’s not the best pass defending linebacker, but he’s probably better than what the Patriots currently have. Add in his pass rushing abilities and he’s definitely a three down player in this defense.
The fact that Hightower was a junior captain on a National Championship team speaks volumes about his leadership and character. If you go to youtube and watch any video interviews with him, his intelligence is also immediately evident. Hightower already talks like a Patriot.
The Hightower fit seems natural on the field and off.