April's NFL Draft was full of surprises, none which were more surprising than the New England Patriots trading up twice to select two downhill players.
One of those players was Dont'a Hightower, a large-sized inside linebacker that has the versatility to play a variety of roles in the front seven. At the University of Alabama, Hightower did just that, playing all over the Crimson Tide's defensive front.
But before I get to his vast alignments, it's important to identify who he is and what type of talent he brings to the Patriots.
Like his teammate Brandon Spikes, Hightower is bigger than your typical inside linebacker. Defenses have moved to shorter and quicker linebackers while the Patriots have continued placing an emphasis on size, which is what they get with the 6'2", 265-pound Hightower.
Moreover, Hightower did several things at Alabama, most notably roaming the middle of the field in the often-discussed 'Cover 1 Robber' concept. This meant that he wasn't assigned an offensive player to cover like his teammates, instead playing zone in the short and intermediate depths and attempting to get his hands on passes by undercutting routes.
When he wasn't playing zone, he was manning tight ends, which he did OK. He didn't stand out in this area because he lacks fluidity, great instincts and overall foot speed, but he wasn't a detriment to the team either because of the way the coverages were played. His pass coverage will be one area that will be interesting to monitor throughout his career to see whether he does well or not.
Hightower did his best work when he was used as a downhill player at Alabama, where he has the play in front of him and is able to read it. He doesn't have issues in this part of his game because he is very strong in his lower body and quick to read and recognize plays. He also possesses the ability to stack and shed blockers.
When it comes to versatility, Hightower usually played inside linebacker, his base position, in head coach Nick Saban's 3-4 front.
The inside linebacker role is one that suits him well because it cuts down the amount of space he has to cover, which is not his strength. Hightower doesn't have great instincts, nor is he a fluid athlete as noted earlier, rather a stocky mauler or "thumper," as many call him. He is best when he is going downhill.
When the defense went to a 4-3 front, he played middle linebacker, which is also known as 'MIKE' linebacker.
The middle linebacker position in the 4-3 is a bit different than the inside linebacker because it exposes Hightower to more space, where he's not always the most comfortable.
Like every other team, the Crimson Tide used a significant amount of sub packages, which is when Hightower made his biggest position change. Hightower went from a two-point stance to a three-point stance when he slid down to defensive end, a position which saw him give offensive tackles fits.
Although he lacks great agility, he has quick hands and a good first step that causes problems from the edge rush position as witnessed against Mississippi State when he beat the right tackle with quick hands.
With all that said, it begs the question, what does he bring to the Patriots defense?
Judging by last season's defensive structure, the odds are that the Patriots will be playing a lot of four-man fronts, which means there are three linebackers, except when the team goes to nickel and dime sub-packages.
Hightower's likely to get a lot of snaps between strong and weak-side linebacker, especially the former because he would be a great asset when the team plays their 'Under' front.
An 'Under' front is when the defensive tackle ('three-technique') covers up the weak-side guard and the strong-side linebacker, which would be Hightower, is on the line of scrimmage.
This is a very interesting alignment for the Patriots because Hightower can disrupt the timing of the tight end coming off the line of scrimmage by jamming and rerouting him, which is ideal because of his strength, prior to blitzing after the quarterback.
Furthermore, when New England goes to their sub-package along with a four-man front, Hightower's likely to slide down to defensive end and look to get after the quarterback.
His ability to do this is interesting because he can also execute drops in coverage from this alignment when the Patriots go to their zone blitzes. He can also force offensive lineman question their blocking assignments by easily going from a three- to two-point stance.
Hightower's versatility was likely the selling point for Bill Belichick when it came to the debate over selecting him in the first round. Belichick emphasis versatility in order to save roster spots to utilize on other crucial positions, which is why Hightower makes so much sense in New England.
The biggest question with Hightower will be is how long it takes him to learn the defense and his various assignments.
Based off of what I was told by a source that was at the University of Alabama yesterday, the coaches at Alabama were told that Hightower has impressed the Patriots coaches with his knowledge, maturity and overall character on and off the field, which suggests his concentration on football could lead to him picking the playbook up quicker.
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