The second in a series looking at the Patriots' 2012 NFL Draft picks, and the roles they might play for the Patriots next year.
Name: Dont'a Hightower
Drafted: 1st round, 25th overall
Overview: Standing at 6'2" and 265 lbs, Dont'a Hightower is an incredible physical specimen who also has surprising athletic ability (ran a 4.68 40 yard dash at the combine). He's a high character guy and was a leader at inside linebacker for Alabama's National Champion defense. He has the potential to be an elite run defender, he can move relatively well in space, and has the strength to set the edge against the run if necessary. He has also shown pass rush potential, occasionally lining up at defensive end in nickel packages for Alabama, and frequently being used on blitzes. And while he isn't an elite athlete, he's got solid awareness in coverage to make up for that deficiency, much like the Patriots' own Brandon Spikes.
Projected Role: The common line of thinking for Patriots fans when it comes to projecting Dont'a Hightower role in the defense is this: Where the heck does he fit? I don't think that necessarily matters too much. While I think that he will develop a defined role at some position over the course of the early years of his career, as a rookie, he'll be able to play a variety of different roles. I think his best fit will be at SILB in the 3-4, but with Brandon Spikes being the primary option at that spot, I think Hightower's snaps will be limited there. I think Hightower can also be a fit at either outside linebacker spot in the 3-4. In the 4-3, Hightower's best two positions will be at the "mike" and "sam" spots. In that scenario, Jerod Mayo will play the "will" while Spikes plays the middle, and Hightower plays the "sam." Hightower could also play a pinch as a sub-package or 4-3 pass rushing end. Overall, Patriots fans should probably stop trying to think of Hightower as a player who can fit into one position. Instead, they should see Hightower as an impact player who can play whatever role needed of the Patriots, likely in a role that will get him a lot of snaps from day one.
Projected Stats: 16 games played; 11 games started; 74 tackles; 2.5 sacks, 4 PD, 1 INT
Bottom Line: Versatile player who plays a variety of roles for the Patriots at linebacker in multiple fronts as a rookie. By year two or three, will have more of a defined position.