When I started writing these free agency preview pieces I didn’t even have Dont’a Hightower on my list since it seemed like a done deal that he would be back in New England. After all, the Patriots had traded away fellow linebackers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins within the last 12 months and popular wisdom of the time said that their new plan was to build the defense around Hightower. It made sense. Hightower was a Belichick type guy: tough, physical, and smart. He was the heart and soul of the Patriots defense, so of course they were going to re-sign him, right? Well, maybe not. Reports out of New England now indicate that the defensive hero of the Patriots Super Bowl comeback is intent on entering the free agent market.
He 'loves New England', but @Patriots' @zeus30hightower enters free agency with eyes wide open https://t.co/qMhQEZMXhf @tomecurran #Patriots— CSN New England (@CSNNE) February 9, 2017
Another sign that he might be done in New England? He didn’t attend the team’s Super Bowl parade this week.
Dont'a Hightower on not attending parade: "I had enough cold, snow, rain, sleet during the season."— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) February 8, 2017
Sure, this could be nothing. Maybe he really just doesn’t like the cold, but a lot of his comments over the past two days are starting to sound like a guy who is serious about leaving New England. Hightower is one of the top 3-4 inside linebackers in the NFL and a guy who has shown a knack for coming up big on the biggest stage the NFL has to offer.
- Age: 26 (will turn 27 on 3/12/2017)
- Height: 6’-3”
- Weight: 265 lbs
- College: Alabama
- Experience: 5 years
- Drafted in 1st round (#25 overall) of 2012 NFL draft by New England
Dont'a Hightower Career Stats.csv
|2016||New England Patriots||13||65||2.5||1||2||--|
|2015||New England Patriots||12||61||3.5||--||2||--|
|2014||New England Patriots||12||89||6||--||2||--|
|2013||New England Patriots||16||97||1||--||3||--|
|2012||New England Patriots||14||60||4||0||3||--|
Here is what NFL.com had to say about Hightower going in to the 2012 NFL Draft:
Hightower is lengthy and imposing lining up in the middle of a defense. He has long arms that he uses effectively to fight off blockers, dip and push to avoid trash at his feet, and keep balls close to him. He is not the most athletic mover in space, but he uses his arms to tie up receivers within his zone and hand fight tight ends off the ball. He is technically sound, although his style of play looks effortless. There are not many wasted motions in his movements, and he takes good angles to the ball when working both sides of the field. Although Hightower doesn't quite possess the speed to be a true sideline-to-sideline inside backer or be the sole tackler in the middle of a 3-4 defense, he uses his instincts well and remains in position.
Hightower has a big frame and can labor at times to move in extended spaces on the field. He excels within the box but likely won't run down many scat backs at the next level. He is good to defend the pass in zone but struggles to maintain coverage in man after trying to disrupt at the line. Hightower struggles to flip his hips in man looks, and there are times when he has to change direction unexpectedly. He isn't heavy-footed, but he pursues the ball with a lot of momentum and can overshoot plays at times.
How Hightower Fits the Titans
Hey, did you guys know that Hightower is from Lewisburg, TN? If Hightower does, in fact, hit the market he would be one of the Titans best possible fits from a scheme and personality perspective. He has spent his entire professional career as a 3-4 inside backer which is the role he would be asked to play in a similar defense here. Hightower’s biggest strengths are in run support between the tackles and his ability to blitz from the 2nd level. He’s a heavy linebacker who is more than capable of taking on guards and centers and holding his own. Hightower doesn't rack up crazy tackle numbers like some other premier linebackers but all you have to do is watch a couple Patriots games to see how valuable he really is. He also brings value as the leader and playcaller for the Patriots defense. Similar to Logan Ryan, we can also be pretty confident that Titans GM Jon Robinson likes Hightower since Robinson was the Patriots Director of College Scouting during the 2012 Draft when the Pats made him their 1st round pick. Hightower’s biggest strength is what he brings between the tackles, but he is not a liability in coverage either grading out as one of the top 20 coverage linebackers in the NFL this year according to PFF.
Here are some examples of Hightower’s strengths as a player. First let's take a look at Hightower’s ability to stack and shed offensive linemen. This may be Hightower’s single most impressive attribute. In the clip below Seahawks left guard James Carpenter is looking to help kick out the end and then release to the second level, but the tackle does such a great job kicking the end out that Carpenter gets a free run at Hightower even better than the Seahawks drew it up. If Carpenter can just get in Hightower’s way they get Marshawn Lynch coming downhill one-on-one with the free safety 10 yards downfield, but Hightower stuffs Carpenter (Bama on Bama crime) back in to the hole. He doesn't make the tackle but he is responsible for blowing up the play and turning what could have been a 15+ yard gain in to a pedestrian 3 yard run.
Here is another example from the same game showing why Hightower is such a terror for opposing offenses. This time he’s blowing up the Seahawks’ center.
This next play is overlooked because it preceded the Malcolm Butler interception, but watch Hightower defeat his block and get just enough of Marshawn Lynch to keep him out of the endzone and giving Butler the chance to play hero on the next play.
Titans fans will particularly enjoy this next one from the most recent Super Bowl. Watch Hightower embarrass Andy Levitre to blow up the play.
The Falcons later on the same drive tried to block Hightower with wide receiver Muhamed Sanu which looked just like you would probably expect it to. Not sure what Kyle Shanahan thought was going to happen here.
The Patriots also love to use Hightower as a blitzer or even as a stand up edge rusher on obvious passing downs. Here Hightower shows excellent timing on an A gap blitz and even though he doesn’t get a sack here, he immediately forces Roethlisberger off his spot and pushes the play off its schedule. This kind of stuff makes a major difference despite not showing up on a box score.
Hightower is clearly a great player and his availability could be interesting to the Titans since he would be a great fit in our defense. Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard are both above-average 3-4 inside linebackers despite their limitations. Neither excels in pass coverage which was the primary complaint about their play last year, but Hightower doesn’t really represent a huge upgrade there. Hightower is undeniably an upgrade over either current starter, but at what cost? Spotrac is projecting a $10.1M per year annual salary for him, but that is likely to be low since reports out of New England indicate that the Patriots already offered Hightower more than $10M per year and were turned down. He is expected to be looking for a deal similar to the one the Browns just gave to Jamie Collins which carried an average salary of $15M per year. That would blow the top contracts for inside linebackers out of the water. Luke Kuechly is currently the highest paid inside linebacker in the league with an annual salary of $12.3M per year. $15M a year seems like a ton to shell out for a run-stuffing inside backer in a passing league. Hightower is a great player and would immediately become the leader of the Titans defense if he were to sign here, but that price tag doesn’t really work for me at that position. His free agency will be a very interesting one to watch over the next month.