The Patriots have made some pretty crazy moves since free agency began: they’ve traded for tight end Dwayne Allen, they signed the Bills’ former top cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, and there’s been talk of trading Malcolm Butler for Saints’ speedster Brandin Cooks. These moves would all improve the team at positions that would become a need considering their departing free agents. Gilmore is a step above Logan Ryan at possibly a lower price. Allen is about 85% of the player Martellus Bennett was, and his contract is at least $3 million lower than Bennett’s will be. And the trade of Butler would be surprising, but they just signed a top corner and could possibly survive without him. The addition of Cooks would bring a new element to the offense with his speed and deep ball ability. Fans should be excited about the moves they are making. But there is one more move that they have to make: bringing back star linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower has been a stud since being drafted by New England with the 25th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. Since then, he has collected 372 tackles, 17 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 17 run stuffs. His best work comes when he’s playing against the run, and run defense has long been a staple of a Bill Belichick defense. Hightower also works as the Patriots’ on-field signal caller for the defense, or “wearing the green dot,” which is the helmet with a communicator to the defensive coordinator. He is in charge of making adjustments to the defensive fronts and putting them in a better position to succeed on a play-by-play basis. This is a role that is extremely important for any defense.
While he is known for his run defending skills, Dont’a Hightower is also a strong pass rusher from the middle linebacker position. The “mike” is a spot that many teams don’t use as a pass rushing player, but the Patriots are known to throw a wrench into conventional playing. One of the most exciting plays defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used to call in passing situations was bringing Hightower and former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins into the A-gap, lined up on either side of the offense’s center, and have one or both of them blitz the passer. It was a play that was often called, and it worked wonders for the team, with a defense that loves to confuse quarterbacks. Although Collins played a major role in this, after his departure Hightower was still able to collect two sacks in the games after his teammate was traded.
The biggest concern with paying Hightower is his durability. He plays an aggressive game that features plenty of hard hits, and that can take a toll on him at times. In his five year career, he has played all 16 regular season games just once (2013, his second year). He has had a variety of issues, including a torn shoulder labrum, a sprained MCL, and various leg injuries. Paying a premium player that has injury issues can get dicey, as the team can be on the hook for a big paycheck even if the player is in the training room more than the meeting room. While it is not a huge concern, as Hightower has played through some injuries, it is something that should be noted by the team.
The Patriots should be working diligently with Dont’a Hightower’s agent to get a deal that he will play on done as soon as possible. Other teams should be salivating at the thought of the former Alabama linebacker in the middle of their defense, and Hightower and his team can use that to their advantage in the negotiations. A fair deal for him would be one that pays about $13 million a year on average, with bonuses to play a certain amount of games in a season (say, an extra $1-2 million for playing all 16 regular season games). Hightower is a focal point of the defense, and the team could struggle without him leading the charge against some of the best rushing attacks in the game. Fans should be waiting with bated breath to see the news of his return, and could end up on the opposite end of the spectrum of emotion if he is signed by another team. Look for #54 to be back on the field in Foxboro this fall if everything goes well.