New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower went down to two knees, throwing himself into the oncoming beast known as Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, tackling him at the 1-yard line and keeping him out of the end zone.
It proved to be a key play in lifting the Patriots to their fourth Super Bowl victory, and it also proved to be a defining play for the Patriots' three-year veteran, who led with his shoulder despite a torn labrum that bothered him for much of the final stretch run of the 2014 season.
He may have played through the injury last season, but according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, Hightower had surgery to repair the shoulder on Feb. 10 and may not be able to play until after the regular season begins.
In a vacuum, it's not such bad news. If Hightower isn't ready to begin the 2015 season, he'll be ready shortly thereafter. The problems emerge when you take the news out of its vacuum.
Veteran linebacker Jerod Mayo suffered a torn patellar tendon in October that ended his 2014 season prematurely, but the estimated timetable for Mayo's return is much shorter than Hightower's—and lines up better with the start of the regular season, thanks to the timing of the injury and subsequent surgery.
With Mayo coming off of his second season-ending injury in the past two seasons, the Patriots could be without two of their most important and most experienced linebackers during offseason programs.
The absences of Mayo and Hightower will open up the way for young linebackers to earn playing time with the first team, but even if Mayo is ready to go to start organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, the Patriots should still have some concerns about his viability coming off that surgery. That is to say, he may not be back to his old self right away.
The question then becomes who steps up in his absence?
In the first two years of his career, young linebacker Jamie Collins has seen his role increase dramatically. If Hightower isn't ready to start the season and Mayo still isn't quite back to 100 percent, Collins becomes all that much more important.
The depth behind Hightower, Collins and Mayo is not promising.
Jonathan Casillas signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the New York Giants this offseason. He played a big role at times in 2014, but according to ProFootballFocus.com, he only participated in more than 50 percent of the snaps on two occasions with the Patriots. One of those games was a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Buffalo Bills.
|Patriots linebacker depth chart|
Darius Fleming and Deontae Skinner played even smaller roles, but with a year of experience in the Patriots defense, they have a leg up on the competition for the time being. Of the remaining linebackers on the Patriots depth chart, Fleming and Skinner have the skill sets that are most comparable to Hightower, with the toughness, discipline and fundamentals to fill in in a pinch.
Hightower's role goes beyond the whistle, though, as he is oftentimes charged with relaying the checks, audibles and other pre-snap information to his fellow defensemen using the green dot helmet for radio communication with the sideline.
Last year, the Patriots were criticized for their failure to address the lack of depth at linebacker. Both Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes left the fold to sign with different teams during the offseason, and the Patriots' only response was to sign three undrafted linebackers (James Morris, Deontae Skinner and Cameron Gordon) and to pick up another linebacker off waivers (Darius Fleming).
As their depth was tested further and further, the Patriots were forced to make trades to supplement the depth chart. The Casillas trade paid off at the time, but now the Patriots are back to the drawing board.