6 Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses of Dont'a Hightower's Game
This month's NFL draft has many intriguing prospects, and one of those is Alabama's Dont'a Hightower, an inside linebacker in Nick Saban's daunted 3-4 defense. Hightower's stock has been rising since the combine in February because of several factors that I will later reveal.
However, there are also questions about his talent that create some indecision as to what position he'll play and what his true value is.
Strength: Size and Build
There are not many inside/middle linebackers that have the size and build of Dont'a Hightower. The first name that comes to mind as comparison is Brandon Spikes of the New England Patriots, who is slightly taller and longer than Hightower but weighs less.
Hightower checked in at the combine at nearly 6'3" and 265 pounds to go along with 32 5/8" arm length. It's safe to say he is a big inside linebacker and packs a punch. His size and length enables him to get in passing lanes while also being able to deal with blockers downhill. It is one of the strengths of his game.
Weakness: Change of Direction Skills
Because of Hightower's build, particularly in his lower body, he has some limitations in his movement skills, especially in his ability to change directions.
He struggles to do open his hips up, turn and run with pass-catchers, which leads him to being in a trail position. This does not often appear on tape however, because of the defense he is playing in.
Nick Saban's defensive scheme does a good job of disguising Hightower's stiff hips by not asking him to play a lot of man coverage despite the rest of the defenders doing so. Instead, he serves as a "robber" underneath in the short and intermediate depths of the field. This role allows him to roam the middle of the field and undercut or "rob" crossing routes.
Strength: Defending the Run
Due to his coverage limitations, Hightower is likely to be limited to the role of two-down run stuffing linebacker that's commonly called a "thumper" in football.
He is very physical downhill, and because of his lengthy arms, he has the ability to engage and disengage from blockers. He also possesses the strength to hold his ground when dealing with trap blocks from pulling guards.
Although the Alabama linebacker ran a quality 40-yard dash of 4.68 for his size, he does not play as fast. It simply does not appear on tape when watching him, as he lacks the foot speed to chase down ball carriers in pursuit and consistently keep up with pass-catchers in coverage.
This is a big reason why he does not play a significant amount of man coverage as previously discussed, and it's also a similar issue that former teammate Rolando McClain had when he came out. McClain went eighth overall in the 2010 NFL draft and has not had much success in coverage.
A big reason why Dont'a Hightower is considered a first-round prospect is his versatility, which has been on display during his career at the University of Alabama in nickel packages.
On some pass downs, Hightower has been moved from his usual inside linebacker alignment down to the defensive end or stand-up rusher position and asked to get after the quarterback.
This may seem a bit unusual, as inside linebackers don't often end up playing defensive end, but that's the case with Hightower, and surprisingly, he's pretty good at it. He showcases a good first step, strength and quick hands which give blockers trouble.
Last but not least, a weakness of Dont'a Hightower's that I identified while watching him play is his instincts or lack thereof.
Instincts are sometimes debated if they are inherent or something you can acquire through hard work in the film room, and it could be either, or perhaps both. In my opinion, it's the former, which is why I knock Hightower in this part of the game.
He does not always locate the ball in coverage, sometimes appearing oblivious to it. And compounded with his athletic limitations, he is a liability in coverage, specifically man coverage.