Since 2010, Bill Belichick has rebuilt the New England Patriots defense with a plethora of draft selections. With hits such as Devin McCourty, Chandler Jones and Alfonzo Dennard supporting shrewd free-agent acquisitions, the Pats have built a unit that effuses both youth and talent.
Still, there is one recent first-rounder who has seemingly polarized the Foxboro faithful. Dont'a Hightower may be entrenched as a starter, but between Jerod Mayo's reliability and Jamie Collins' irresistible upside, Hightower seems like the third wheel among the linebackers.
There's no doubt that Hightower struggled at times in 2013. Forced into three-down duties after Mayo's season-ending pectoral injury, the second-year linebacker committed some head-scratching mistakes and generally appeared overwhelmed as the fulcrum of the defense.
However, there's reason to believe the struggles were the outlier rather than the signal of Hightower's career thus far. Delving deeper into the stats and the film, it appears that further development and more favorable circumstances could lead to a bounce-back year.
Miscast in 2013
The Patriots have had plenty of struggles defending the passing game over recent seasons, and it's hard for a player to draw more ire in coverage than past players like Darius Butler or Terrence Wheatley. However, even while generally covering running backs and H-backs, Hightower's coverage woes often drew groans:
Mayo's injury really forced Hightower into some tough situations, and though he deserves some credit for gamely accepting an unfamiliar role, he was undoubtedly a severe liability in coverage.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hightower's coverage graded negatively in 10 of 16 regular-season games. Indeed, among New England linebackers, he was the worst in coverage by various per-play metrics:
|2014 Coverage Stats of Patriots Linebackers|
|Player||Targets||Receptions||Cover Snap/Target||Yards/Cover Snap||Cover Snap/Rec|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Considering that New England employed Brandon Spikes last season, that's no small feat. In fairness, Hightower did bear the greatest burden in terms of total coverage snaps played. Still, his stiff hips often had him far out of position—in Week 15, for instance, the Miami Dolphins' Marcus Thigpen broke loose on a wheel route for the game-winning touchdown:
This doesn't look like an issue where Hightower can simply drop weight and improve his lateral agility. His awareness also suggested rudimentary coverage instincts. On this play, it appeared the Pats were in Cover 1 man coverage based on the pre-snap look and subsequent movement. And yet, Hightower jumped a fake screen and lost his man, which Geno Smith fortunately failed to identify:
Indeed, 2013 may have simply been a case of too much too soon for the second-year linebacker. Few players in the league are capable of providing above-average production when forced to play three downs. For proof, Hightower can look at his new teammate James Anderson, who posted a putrid minus-14.1 overall grade because he was forced to play on running downs amid injuries in Chicago.
But it's clear the Patriots overplayed their hand in making Hightower the fulcrum of their defense. Only eight linebackers were targeted more frequently in coverage last season, as opposing quarterbacks completed 71.2 percent of their throws at Hightower. On essentially anything besides a flat route, Hightower typically responded by committing borderline illegal contact and/or holding.
The Patriots would be wise to scale back Hightower's coverage responsibilities (and overall snap count), as they appeared to have a deleterious effect on his overall performance. Though further development might turn Hightower into an adequate coverage linebacker, there's really no point given the Patriots' current personnel. In fact, Hightower's skill dovetails well with a role New England actually needs filled.
A Spikes Replacement?
Now that I've thoroughly chastised Hightower, it's time to fulfill the title of this piece and illustrate why he remains an integral cog in the defense.
Given Spikes' departure in the offseason, it's unclear how the linebackers will line up in the base defense. Though position labels are often anachronistic in a league that increasingly demands hybrid skill sets, it was still interesting to see Pro Football Focus label Hightower as its prototypical 4-3 "SAM" linebacker.
Moreover, the description penned by PFF's Sam Monson could foreshadow Hightower's role in 2014:
...[Strong] side linebackers need to be stronger and more stout than their counterparts on the weak side. Not every run goes to the strong side of the formation and so there will be some crossover in skills between these outside linebackers, but typically SAM linebackers need to contend with a more physically demanding game.
Complete SAM backers are becoming rare players to find. The abilities necessary to take on lead blockers against the run and still be able to cover athletic tight ends down the field is working the problem from both ends at the same time. The position is therefore becoming ever-more a two-down player — a run specialist that gets replaced when teams go to nickel defense for a more athletic and fluid player in coverage.
Indeed, even with his struggles in pass coverage, Hightower's exemplary run defense made him a clear net positive last season. As we can see, he was also a relatively prolific playmaker, as his total stops (tackles that constitute an offensive failure) matched up well with the other top run-stuffers, apart from the otherworldly Lavonte David:
|Top 10 4-3 OLB By Run Defense in 2014|
|Player||Run Grade||Total Stops|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Most fans don't like to see their favorite teams draft two-down players in the first round. Then again, given the significant leaps Hightower made against the run, it's not difficult to envision him replicating Spikes' Foxboro legacy—a downhill thumper who effectively serves as an extra defensive lineman against the run.
If Hightower does play more in the middle, his experience last season should serve him well. The film generally illustrated Hightower lining up over the B-gap (between the tackle and the guard), an interior angle that will often made him the focal point of down blocks from multiple angles. Nevertheless, his ability to sift through traffic and limit cutback opportunities was consistently excellent:
That makes Hightower different from the tone-setting Spikes. Whereas the former is a refined technician, the latter's playing style equated to a wrecking ball packed with explosives. Both methods are effective, but even Hightower himself admitted that he does not possess the same imposing aura as Spikes:
But do not assume that Hightower is not capable of creating havoc in the backfield as well. The aforementioned stops statistic should have belied his playmaking ability; though he did not make the tackle in this particular instance, his immediate penetration redirected the running back and doomed the play:
Thus, Hightower's baseline is likely that of an elite run-stuffer who is a fixture in base personnel. But with the game moving toward sub-packages, how can Hightower remain relevant in that area despite his coverage deficiencies?
An Underlying Skill
If Hightower turns into a three-down linebacker, it will be due to his pass-rushing ability. Considering that he has accrued just five sacks in two seasons, including one in 2013, that assertion might appear puzzling.
But there have been indications Hightower could actually provide solid a pass rush if given more frequent opportunities. Before he was even drafted, prominent scouting sites like Walter Football and NEPatriotsDraft.com portrayed Hightower as an excellent pass-rusher. At Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban used him on the line but also as a blitzer up the middle and off the edge:
Since coming to the pros, Hightower has flashed well in limited opportunities. Among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David had a better pass-rushing productivity (a per-play efficiency metric).
Hightower has made his desire to rush the passer known this offseason. While acknowledging that he would carry out the role prescribed for him, he was explicit in stating his preference for blitzing over coverage, per MassLive.com's Nick Underhill:
Third down, honestly, I'm just gonna put it out there, I'd much rather rush or blitz than cover. Zone, man, or whatever. Third down is a fun down whether you're covering or whatever you're doing, because you can do different kind of things and come at the quarterback all kind of ways. As long as I'm able to be on the field on third down, or whatever they ask me to do, I'm willing to do it.
In the early stages of training camp, it appears as though Hightower's wish may be coming to fruition. Of course, NESN's Doug Kyed was also careful to include the caveat that late-July experimentation does not always equate to September schemes:
Unfortunately, there is precious little film of Hightower on designed blitzes. Most of his rushes came on "green dog blitzes," in which he blitzed only after the running back he was assigned to stayed in the backfield to block. Consequently, it was near impossible to accurately assess Hightower's pass-rushing arsenal, as he generally just bull-rushed over the smaller running back to create pressure:
Belichick rarely sent him on a designed blitz, and I could not find a single instance of him lining up in a three-point stance on the line as he did at Alabama. Do not expect to see much of the latter wrinkle, as Jamie Collins' long arms and first-step explosiveness would appear to make him a better fit as a down lineman.
But with a revamped secondary primed to play devastating press coverage, the opportunities for blitzing should be ample. That could manifest itself in many different forms of zone or man pressure, but Hightower at least figures to benefit from the more creative play-calling options available to Belichick.
Hightower is never going to morph into an all-around Bowmanian linebacker. For Patriots fans hoping he can make significant strides in pass coverage, they will likely be disappointed both this season and beyond.
But that does not make Hightower a bust, nor should Patriots fans dismiss him as a Spikes clone. In the impatient demand for results, many seem to forget Hightower just finished his second season and remains an overall asset despite being forced into an unexpectedly large role.
Take a look at the strong 2012 linebacker draft class—the trio of David, Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner has separated itself, but who else has approached Hightower's responsibilities and productivity?
Hightower may never become an All-Pro, but he is a cornerstone of the defense moving forward. His skill set, though not as sexy as Chandler Jones' pass rush or Devin McCourty's ball-hawking, is vitally important to the integrity of the Patriots' interior defense.
With untapped pass-rushing potential, Hightower still possesses considerable room for growth. If he breaks through in 2014, perhaps we should not call it a comeback, but rather a case of finding a role that maximizes his talents.