With opening day still more than two months away and the mandatory portion of the initial wave of offseason workouts over, we have entered the more quiet parts of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and studying sessions, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with the team’s defensive signal caller.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6’3, 265 lbs.
2016 review: Following the Patriots' victory in Super Bowl XLIX, the team exercised the fifth-year contract option of 2012 first round draft pick Dont’a Hightower. As a result, Hightower did not hit unrestricted free agency in March 2016 and instead returned to New England one a one-year, $7.75 million deal – and he was able to prove why the Patriots opted to pick up option.
Hightower, who was named a team captain for the first time before the start of the season, was one of the NFL’s best linebackers in 2016. A core member of the Patriots' top-ranked scoring defense, he appeared in 13 of New England’s regular season games – missing three games because of a knee injury – and played a total of 67.9% (709 of 1,044) of the team’s defensive snaps.
When on the field, Hightower was a highly productive and versatile presence. He aligned both on and off the line of scrimmage and was used as an exterior and interior pass rusher, blitzer, classic run defender and in coverage. Overall, the Alabama product finished the regular season with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 15 hurries – his quarterback pressure percentage being tops in the NFL for linebackers.
Hightower also was responsible for two safeties and forced a fumble. As a run defender and pass rusher, he was once again outstanding and was deservedly voted to his first Pro Bowl and named second-team All Pro. His pass coverage still had its ups and downs, though: He did allow 70.6% of passes thrown his way to be completed (24 of 34), among them three touchdowns, but only gave up 4.6 yards per target.
While he missed three regular season games due to injury, Hightower was active during all three of the Patriots’ playoff contests, playing 154 of 187 defensive snaps (82.4%) – his usage was a bit differently when compared to the regular season, though. Predominately used as an off-the-ball linebacker over the course of the regular season, Hightower saw more time on the defensive edge during the postseason.
The most prominent example of this came during Super Bowl LI, when he made one of the game’s biggest plays: Rushing from the edge, Hightower sacked Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and forced a fumble which was recovered by Patriots’ defensive tackle Alan Branch. It was Hightower’s lone sack of the postseason to go along with 13 tackles, three quarterback hits and one hurry as well as five allowed completions (on five targets) for a total of 38 yards.
2017 preview: After his Super Bowl win, Dont’a Hightower became the Patriots’ premier unrestricted free agent. But despite reported interest from multiple teams – among them the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers – the 27-year old returned to New England one week after the start of free agency: Hightower and the team agreed to a four-year, $35.5 million contract.
Due to the deal, the Patriots will keep their team captain, defensive signal caller and best linebacker in the fold. And as has been the case over his first five seasons with the team, Hightower will likely be used in a multitude of roles to take advantage of his top-notch instincts and athleticism. Aligning all over the formation, he will ideally play close to a 100% of the team's defensive snaps.
When considering Hightower’s injury history – health is his biggest concern as he has played all 16 games just once in his five-year career – seeing him play almost all of the Patriots’ snaps on defense will probably not be the case. Nevertheless, when healthy, he will rarely leave the field and play against both the pass and the run as well as in goal line or other situation-specific packages.
As such, he is projected to once again be New England’s most prominently featured linebacker and among the team’s best run stoppers and pass rushers. And, who knows, maybe even make another play for the ages again.