Dont’a Hightower to the rescue.
Just as the panic surrounding the Patriots’ pass rush was reaching a fever pitch, the 2016 Pro Bowler returned from the PUP list last week. In the wake of Rob Ninkovich’s retirement, and what appears to be a season-ending injury to rookie Derek Rivers, the team released Kony Ealy on Saturday afternoon, further depleting the group’s depth.
Before the start of training camp, and prior to the defense sustaining losses on the perimeter of the front-seven, the addition of David Harris to the linebacker group opened the floodgates for speculation that Dont’a Hightower could potentially be utilized on the edge to a far greater extent in 2017. Fuel was added to this fire last Tuesday as Kevin Duffy of Masslive.com reported that the linebacker was spotted with the defensive linemen during the warm up and stretching portions of his first practice of camp. This continued on Monday, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
Patriots have a to-be-announced roster addition at DE as a new player was present at practice. Dont'a Hightower continues to warm up w/ DEs.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) August 28, 2017
Yet, with such limited practice time under his belt, and a small brace protecting his right knee (also reported by Duffy), it was no surprise that Hightower was not active for last Friday’s “dress rehearsal” game in the Motor City. So, without seeing how he has been deployed in practice or in game action, speculation of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s potential positional switch will have to remain exactly that — speculation.
Surely there are some who must be wondering, aside from the aforementioned deficiency atop the pass-rushing depth chart, why the team would be so eager to transition their green dot-wearing defensive leader in the middle of the field to a more permanent position on the edge. Why fix what isn’t broken?
Because they’ve already tried it before — and it has worked.
Hightower’s often-lauded combination of size (6’2” 270 pounds and with 32 5/8” arms, longer than those of Chargers pass-rushing stud Melvin Ingram) and athleticism allows him remain explosive and flexible, utilizing speed or power moves against tackles when rushing the passer. It also allows him to track down ball carriers from the backside of run plays, and effectively set the edge against on stretches and tosses to his side of the field.
According to PFF, during the final five games in which Hightower was active last season (week 15, week 17, and the playoffs), Matt Patricia deployed him as an edge rusher on 81 of his 157 defensive snaps. He tallied 171 pass rushing snaps during the entire season, which was the third most of any qualifying true off-the-ball linebacker behind Houston’s Bernardrick McKinney and the Giants’ Devon Kennard.
Sure, positional snap volume is one thing, but it’s what you do with those snaps that counts. Hightower was PFF’s top graded off-the-ball linebacker when rushing the quarterback in 2016. His 76.0 grade was not only the highest, but one of only nine pass-rushing grades over 70 at the position. The other eight linebackers with a 70+ grade averaged 86.1 pass-rushing snaps for the season.
As exciting as the potential move is, you’ll have to forgive Dont’a Hightower’s management team if they aren’t exactly over the moon about it.
Having thoroughly tested the free agent market this offseason, Hightower and his team finally decided to come back to Foxborough on a four-year, $35.5 million contract with $17 million guaranteed. The former Alabama Crimson Tide superstar became the NFL’s eighth-highest off-the-ball linebacker in terms of average value per year — making the deal arguably the most team-friendly of the offseason involving a player of his caliber.
Of course, it’s impossible to know the intimate details of the team’s plans for Dont’a before or during the contract negotiation process, but any mention of an increase in his pass-rushing presence would only have driven up the price of his services. Yet, months after inking a team-friendly, linebacker-market-based contract that locks him in until his age-31 season, Hightower is warming up with the defensive linemen.
Imagine if he were paid as an edge rusher.
For an apt market comparison, it’s important to identify the type of edge rusher Hightower’s position will likely resemble. That is, a player who is rarely in a three-point stance and who can contribute multiple coverage snaps per game. Of the comparable 3-4 outside linebacker-style edge rushers, here are the ten highest paid, in terms of annual value per year:
- Von Miller
- Justin Houston
- Chandler Jones
- Melvin Ingram
- Clay Matthews
- Ryan Kerrigan
- Bruce Irvin
- Jabaal Sheard
- Brian Orakpo
- Tamba Hali
According to numbers compiled from overthecap.com, their average per-year contract value is $12,561,667 while the average for a top-ten off-the-ball linebacker is currently $10,028,406. Hightower’s deal? $8,875,000.
Last season, according to PFF, these players averaged 773.1 total snaps. On average, 56% of their snaps were dedicated to rushing the quarterback, 35% came against the run, and 8% were spent in coverage. After extrapolating per-game averages over a 16-game season, these players averaged 8.1 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries in 2016.
If the Patriots pull the trigger and move him to a full-time edge role, is it not completely reasonable to assume that Dont’a Hightower could meet or exceed these type of pass-rushing numbers? If he does, the Patriots will successfully save $3,686,667 per year for a top-producing 3-4-style edge rusher. That’s over $14.7 million over the four-year duration of the contract.
What’s the harm in giving the move a try? If it works, the team receives a sizable discount on premium production at a premium position. The worst case scenario? He doesn’t produce on the edge, they move him back to the middle, and receive elite linebacker production at an already team-friendly rate.
From a salary cap management standpoint, it’s the quintessential Patriots move.