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New England Patriots roster breakdown: #54 LB Dont’a Hightower

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Hightower is already one of the best linebackers in the game. Can he improve even more in 2016?

NFL: AFC Championship-New England Patriots at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The mandatory phase of the New England Patriots’ offseason workouts is over – at least until training camp starts in late July – and we have re-entered the quieter parts of the NFL calendar.

However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop. After all, by late August, each team has to start making its roster cuts. Until then, players have to secure their spots on the team; they need to do their jobs (well) or someone else will.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots on the 2016 New England Patriots. Today, we’ll continue the series with linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Name: Dont’a Hightower

Position: Linebacker

Jersey number: 54

Age: 26

Experience: 4

Size: 6’3, 265 lbs.

2015 review: Dont’a Hightower has had another very good season in 2015, further cementing his place among the top linebackers in the NFL. He was a force against the run, dangerous as a blitzer and even able to hold his own in pass coverage. And while he did not have the flashy plays of fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, Hightower was arguably the most important cog in New England’s defensive machine.

Hightower appeared in 12 of the Patriots’ regular season games and both playoff contests and finished the year with 73 total tackles, among them two tackles for loss and seven run stuffs. He added 3.5 sacks, eight quarterback hits and nine pressures, while also recovering two fumbles. Furthermore, Hightower drew two penalties.

His numbers while in coverage were not too shabby either: Hightower was targeted 17 times but allowed only 10 completions (58.8%) for 69 yards. He broke up two of those passes and the rating quarterbacks had when targeting him – 68.8 – was the lowest for all New England linebackers.

If there is one knock on his 2015 season it is that he played only 58.0% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps (725 of 1,249), missing four games because of injury and being limited in others (among them both playoff games). In a perfect world, Hightower plays close to 100% of the snaps. Unfortunately, he only appeared in all of his team’s games only once in his four-year professional career.

2016 preview: Prior to the 2015 season, the Patriots picked up Hightower’s fifth-year rookie contract option. Consequently, he is with New England for the final year of his deal and will play under a fully-guaranteed $7.751 million salary. But it is not only the financial aspect that makes Hightower a roster lock: his importance to the defense does as well.

Hightower, as noted above, is a complete linebacker and one of the best in the game. His ability and availability make the Patriots’ defense a different unit, one much harder to move the ball against. The coaching staff can use both him and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins in a variety of roles, knowing that neither of them is a liability.

Therefore, the questions entering the 2016 season are not related to Hightower’s skills or if he makes the team. Instead, there are two different questions to be asked: will he be able to stay healthy and under which financial conditions will he play?

The first question is tough to answer. After all, to predict whether or not a player gets hurt is impossible. However, changing the circumstances surrounding a player and his training regimen might lead to a change in injuries. New England replacing strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash with Moses Cabrera might therefore lead to Hightower seeing more playing time this year as compared to years past.

The second question will be one of the most intriguing storylines in the upcoming weeks. Hightower is set to enter unrestricted free agency in March 2017 and naturally will be a highly sought-after player. New England likely wants to keep him but in order to do that at favorable conditions, the team and the player will have to come to an agreement about a contract extension. How will it look like, and will this agreement be reached over the course of the summer? That remains to be seen.

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There are a lot of questions surrounding Dont’a Hightower, his contract and his health. Questions, that will likely not be answered soon. What seems certain, though, is that the 26-year old will play in Foxboro in 2016. And that he will once again be one of the top linebackers in the league.