Prior to the 2016 season, the Patriots were offering $10 million per year on an extension, but Hightower’s Second Team All Pro distinction and his meetings with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers led to an increased offer of $10.875 million per season.
In exchange, the Patriots will have Hightower through his age-30 season and the linebacker will get another crack at free agency in 2021. It’s important to note that Hightower will have nine years of accrued experience at this point and will still be eligible for the max compensatory pick; veterans with 10 years of experience max out at a 5th round compensatory pick, regardless of contract value.
This seems like a win-win for both sides as Hightower will be the third-highest paid off the ball linebacker in the NFL, while the Patriots are protected against his many injuries by giving just $19 million in guarantees, which ranks 10th for off the ball linebackers.
Despite the perfect match between the Patriots and Hightower, there are some that believe the Patriots are making a mistake and that Hightower is “overrated and overhyped.” Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a doozy of a take, saying that the Patriots “did the Steelers a favor” by signing Hightower.
Bouchette explains that Hightower wouldn’t fill a need on their roster, which is a fine reason. The Steelers need an EDGE player, a cornerback, a wide receiver, and a running back, per Bouchette. The Steelers run a 3-4 defense, so it’s fine to say Hightower isn’t a great fit for their exact need.
But Bouchette continues by writing:
“Hightower is overrated and overhyped, partly because he made two key plays to help the Patriots win two Super Bowls, partly because he was a first-round draft pick and partly, well, because he played in New England.”
This is crazy talk. Let’s break down his article to explain why.
“If he was so valuable to the Patriots,” Bouchette ponders, “why didn’t they sign him to an extension last year, and why did they let him test free agency?”
The Patriots did try to extend him. They offered him $10 million per season, but Hightower wanted Luke Kuechly-level money. The Patriots did not believe he was worth Luke Kuechly-level money. Hightower can still be a great linebacker, even if he is not Luke Kuechly.
The Patriots did not place a franchise tag on Hightower because that cost includes Von Miller’s contract in the value. Hightower is also not Von Miller- and that’s okay.
The transition tag presented a more reasonable value, but it would allow another team to dictate the contract for Hightower- and since the Jets apparently offered Hightower more money (nigh Kuechly-level money), then the Patriots would have had to match. Instead, the Patriots played their hand correctly as Hightower was willing to take less to remain in New England.
“Hightower is an inside linebacker, and the Steelers lost one of the best at that position when Lawrence Timmons signed with the Dolphins for two years and $12 million,” Bouchette continues. “But with Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, they still seemed to be set at their inside starters for 2017. Would Hightower been an improvement over Williams? Maybe, but maybe not much. Certainly, it would have been a luxury you’d think a team like the Steelers couldn’t afford.”
Timmons might have been one of the best in the league in the past, but he will be 31 years old in May and is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. He ranks as one of ProFootballFocus’ worst free agent linebackers, ranking 16 out of 23 linebackers with 400+ snaps in 2016 with a score of 48.4/100.
Guess who ranks #1 out of those 23? That’s Dont’a Hightower at 85.7/100.
Timmons was terrible in coverage- he allowed 11 completions for 90 yards against the Patriots in 2016, per the Herald’s Jeff Howe- and his probable replacement Vince Williams isn’t much better. Ryan Shazier missed the 4th most tackles of all linebackers (21), over twice as many as Hightower missed during a down year (10).
Hightower can stop the run, he can cover in space (he allowed just one touchdown in 2014-15), and he’s “the best blitzer in the game.” He might not be as fast or athletic as Shazier- but don’t let that distract from the fact that Hightower is a vastly superior and consistent player.
“Perhaps the Steelers thought they could use Hightower on the outside, since Bill Belichick moved him all around in New England’s defense,” Bouchette considers. “But there is little to show that he would have flourished out there, and he’s certainly not one to cover receivers as James Harrison and the other Steelers outside linebackers must. They would have been better off going after a young outside linebacker like John Simon. Although he started just 12 games in Houston over the past two seasons, he had 8½ sacks, 2½ more than Hightower over that span. The Colts signed Simon, 26, as a free agent for $13.5 million over three seasons.”
No argument here that Simon, a 3-4 outside linebacker with the Houston Texans, would make more sense as a 3-4 outside linebacker with the Steelers. This is a better examination of why Hightower wouldn’t be a fit with Pittsburgh- not that he is “overrated”, just that he’s not a 3-4 outside linebacker in the mold the Steelers want.
Hightower is used all over the Patriots defense, including on the edge, but he is primarily an off the ball linebacker. He won’t cover slot receivers or speedy receiving backs- but it seems like the Steelers linebacker can’t do that anyways, so that’s more a problem with the Pittsburgh scheme not putting players in a position to succeed.
“Steelers president Art Rooney II expressed a desire for his defense to put more heat on the quarterback in 2017,” Bouchette explains. “But Hightower isn’t exactly a pass-rushing machine. He had 2½ sacks last season, the same as Anthony Chickillo. He has 17 sacks in his five seasons with New England, or fewer than half of what Timmons (35½) had in 10 seasons — and Timmons did not become a regular starter until Year 3.”
Chickillo is an edge defender. One would hope Chickillo would generate more sacks with greater pass rushing opportunity. The Pittsburgh defense specializes in blitzing (over 35% of snaps in six of the past eight years)- it’s why Patriots QB Tom Brady moves the ball so easily against them- so Timmons simply just has greater opportunity to rack up stats.
The Patriots rush just three players more than any team in the league and twice as much as the league average. They blitz defensive backs less than every other team in the league (the Steelers rank 2nd). They’ve hovered at 20-25% blitz rate during Hightower’s tenure.
In other words, the Steelers blitz almost twice as much as the Patriots do. Of course Timmons will generate more sacks.
It’s Hightower’s efficiency that stands out; he’s generated a higher rate of pressure than any other linebacker in his few attempts.
“Hightower, a first-round pick in 2012, started right away for the Patriots,” Bouchette continues. “Unlike the ironman Timmons, he could not stay on the field and missed 11 games over the past three seasons. Timmons left Pittsburgh having started the past 101 regular-season games and played in the last 120.
“The Steelers would have been better off signing Timmons to the deal Miami gave him instead of throwing money at Hightower, who at 27 may have his best years behind him.”
Hightower’s health is fair criticism. Hightower has never played 80% of the snaps in a single season. Timmons has played more than 90% in each of the past five years, and 96.9% of all snaps over that span. Major edge to Timmons.
But to say that Hightower’s best years might be behind him is a laughable claim.
“Hightower as playmaker?,” Bouchette asks. “Please. He had a career-high six sacks in 2014 and just six combined the past two regular seasons. That is 1½ fewer than Harrison, at 38, had in 2016 — 7½, including 2½ in the playoffs.
“He could’ve contributed in other ways — but it was not through forced fumbles (two in his career), fumble recoveries (three) or interceptions (zero). Timmons had two interceptions in 2016 alone, 12 in his career, and had five passes defensed last season.”
Again, of course Hightower will have fewer sacks than an edge rusher. Oh, and here’s a small montage of Hightower’s greatest hits.
The rest of the article is looking at how the Steelers don’t typically go after a player like Hightower and how signing Hightower would have used up valuable cap space when there are other priority players in need of extensions. That’s all justifiable reasons for not signing the Patriots linebacker.
But to call a player “overhyped” just because he, you know, helped win two Super Bowls? That’s ridiculous.