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How will the Patriots replace LB Dont’a Hightower if he can’t play?

The Patriots have an interesting decision to make for their defense this week.

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The New England Patriots have to make a tough decision with linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Hightower suffered a knee injury early in the first quarter against the Cardinals and while he played the rest of the game, it severely limited his ability to perform.

Hightower was not at Wednesday’s practice, which puts his availability for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins in jeopardy. How will the Patriots adjust if Hightower is unable to play?

When Hightower is on the field, the Patriots feature either a 4-3 front or a 4-2 front.

With Rob Ninkovich suspended and Shea McClellin working his way back into the line-up, the Patriots used Hightower as the strongside linebacker in the 4-3 formations, with Jonathan Freeny as the middle linebacker and Jamie Collins as the weakside linebacker. When McClellin is on the field, he assumes the strongside role, while Hightower shifts to middle linebacker.

Hightower and Collins are the primary two linebackers in the 4-2 fronts. However, the strongside linebacker (McClellin, Ninkovich) would likely step up and help on the defensive front in these packages, so the middle linebacker and weakside linebacker will generally be the stand-up backers here.

With these basic roles in mind, these are my three projected options if Hightower is unable to play against the Dolphins.

Option One

WLB: Jamie Collins; MLB Jonathan Freeny; SLB Shea McClellin

The Patriots prefer for injuries to have the least amount of impact on the starting personnel. If one player on the offensive line is injured (say, Nate Solder), they opt to put the back-up at injured position (say, Cameron Fleming), instead of moving a present starter into the role (say, Marcus Cannon).

In Option One, Collins and McClellin stay at their standard roles, with Freeny making a one-for-one substitution with Hightower. Freeny also played this role last season, so I could see head coach Bill Belichick leaning on that past experience, just like he did for the few snaps Hightower was unable to play against the Cardinals.

McClellin did outplay Freeny on defense, 24 snaps to 6, so it’s possible that McClellin would join Collins as the base linebackers in the 4-2 front.

Option Two

WLB: Barkevious Mingo; MLB Jamie Collins; SLB Shea McClellin

The Patriots will have had a full week to plan for the potential absence of Hightower, and Mingo now has a few weeks in the Patriots system. Could that be enough to lift him into the starting lineup?

It was clear in the preseason that Mingo is one of the most talented linebackers on the Patriots roster and he starred as the weakside linebacker in the preseason. However, his inexperience in the system could limit his role on defense and it’s clear the Patriots were only comfortable using him on special teams last week.

But perhaps the Patriots would want to bump Collins to the middle of the defense with the green dot, instead of using Freeny, and that’s a defendable decision. If this is the case, then using Mingo on the weakside could be a serious option.

Option Three

WLB: Barkevious Mingo; MLB Jonathan Freeny; SLB Jamie Collins

This is the longest shot, in my opinion, because it requires every linebacker to shuffle around. The Patriots used Hightower on the edge against the Cardinals for a reason, though, and perhaps they want an experienced linebacker to offer that versatility on the edge. Collins fits that description.

This unit puts Mingo in his natural position, while Freeny can play the role that he has experience filling in 2015. This grouping hinges on whether or not the Patriots want Collins to play on the edge as much as Hightower did against the Cardinals.

Which option do you prefer?