Earlier today, news broke that New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower will miss the remainder of the season due to pectoral injury. That is obviously awful news both for the 27-year old as well as for a Patriots defense that is just coming off its best performance of the season – one Hightower obviously was a big part of until leaving the contest due to his injury.
Let's take a wider look at the news now and break down what this means for the team and the player.
The Patriots lose a lot of defensive versatility...
One of Hightower's biggest strengths is his ability to play all over the place. The former first rounder is a chess piece for the Patriots' coaching staff to play with and has proven his productivity no matter if he aligns on or off the line, on the interior or the edge. This, in turn, allows the team to find and exploit mismatches. And while the team has used Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin in similar roles in the past, they are a clear downgrade from Hightower.
Prior to the season, Hightower was again voted team captain and his leadership is one of the reasons why he is such an important player for New England. The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe recently called him “the Willie McGinest of the current generation”, a player you do not want to cross in the locker room and who has helped spark the defensive turnaround. With him absent, other players such as fellow captains Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon now have to step up.
Kyle Van Noy will likely be in charge of communication
Earlier in the year, when Hightower saw more playing time on the defensive edge, Kyle Van Noy wore the communication device in his helmet. During New England's week five game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Hightower again took over responsibilities for relaying calls to his teammates. Now, the green dot will likely find its way back onto Van Noy's helmet. The Patriots have to hope that the early season practice will help him adjust to the role.
Hightower will lose out on $2.6 million in roster bonuses
As part of the four-year contract extension he signed in March, Hightower agreed to various roster bonuses. Among them are $875,000 in per game bonuses and up to $2.0 million in playing time, Pro Bowl and All Pro incentives. Now, because of injury, Hightower will spend the remaining nine regular season games on the sidelines and will not be able to reach the escalators to trigger his incentives. As a result of all this, he will have missed out on $2.6 million in bonus money by the end of the year. His $1.25 million salary and $2.5 million signing bonus proration are fully guaranteed, though.
Look for Shea McClellin, David Harris to see increased roles
Shea McClellin has not yet been activated off injured reserve but is expected to return to the 53-man roster after the Patriots' week nine bye. The 28-year old will likely play a big role in replacing Hightower due to his experience in the system and his similarly versatile skill set. Offseason acquisition David Harris is also likely to see more playing time now that two linebackers – Hightower and Harvey Langi – have been ruled out for the rest of the year.
New England could be in the trade market for a linebacker
While the linebacker corps is talented, its depth is put under a lot of pressure now that Hightower will be out for the rest of the year. With the trade deadline looming, the Patriots could therefore very well be in the market for an additional player. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks is one of the players that comes to mind. The former second round draft pick has been on the trading block in the past and could spark some interest again now.