Few players exemplify what Bill Belichick looks for at a position as accurately as future Patriots Hall of Famer Dont’a Hightower does at linebacker.
The three-time Super Bowl champion is highly skilled, highly intelligent, highly versatile, and plays with a nasty physicality that sets the tone for the entire defense.
Last season, one of Hightower’s best, the Pats linebacker ranked eighth among all players, and first among linebackers, in Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric.
Belichick has perfected his role over the years, taking Hightower out of coverage in obvious passing situations and inserting him into the pass rush where he’s an absolute force.
The former first-round pick led all off-ball linebackers with 33 quarterback pressures after joining the rush on a position-high 277 passing plays, dropping into coverage just 190 times in 2019 (second-fewest among linebackers).
By using him sparingly in coverage, Belichick unlocked a downhill missile that makes an impact by attacking the line of scrimmage and getting involved in New England’s pressure schemes.
And Hightower’s football IQ and skill set allow him to cycle through the Patriots’ primary alignments for their linebackers: off the ball, in-line, or on the edge of the defense.
In 2019, Hightower had a 60-40 split of snaps off the line and on the line, respectively.
The 30-year-old’s effectiveness as a pass rusher comes in many ways, but he’s at his best as a stunt/twist chess piece on passing downs.
Here, Hightower lines up over the left tackle in a two-point stance and performs a TEX stunt with defensive tackle Adam Butler. The idea is to have Hightower penetrate and occupy both the left guard and center so that Butler can wrap around his rush for a free run at the quarterback. In this play, Bills center Mitch Morse doesn’t see Hightower slanting towards him, and gets tossed to the side by the Pats linebacker on his way to Josh Allen. Hightower creates his own path to the quarterback by clearing out Morse and forces an errant throw by Allen, who misses an open receiver due to the pressure.
Two seasons ago, Hightower was in the running for MVP of Super Bowl 53 after a two-sack performance and a whole lot of disruption on similar schemes as the one above.
Along with rushing the passer, the Pats linebacker is one of the physical run defenders in football, leading to 36 run stops last season, the most he’s had in a season since 2016.
On this play, the Steelers try to fool the Patriots defense with a reverse counter scheme, but Hightower isn’t fooled. Instead, the 260-pound Pats linebacker pancakes Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva (6-foot-9, 320 pounds) into the ground to shed and make the stop.
Tackles near the line of scrimmage after a physical encounter with offensive linemen are a regular occurrence for Hightower, and he’s also a stout edge setter at outside linebacker.
Here, Hightower (over left tackle) stays discipline against the shovel reverse, keeps his eyes in the backfield to play through the blocker, gets his hat outside to set the edge, and forces the ball carrier to cut back inside where he goes down for a loss.
Although only 24 percent of his snaps came in coverage last season, Hightower’s 72.4 coverage grade was his highest since 2016 as he continues to get quicker even as he ages.
Here, the Browns set up a crossing route for slot receiver Jarvis Landry off a hard play-action fake from under center. After one false step forward, Hightower instantly changes directions and falls underneath Landry’s route to force Baker Mayfield to his second option. Mayfield makes a great quarterback play to complete a pass along the sideline, but the Pats linebacker made it difficult on the Browns QB.
Hightower can cause havoc as a pass rusher, win in the trenches, consistently make plays against the run, and drop into coverage successfully, putting him in the elite category.
According to our exclusive partner BetOnline.ag, Hightower is a long shot to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 (+20000), but his value to New England’s defense is apparent.
The Pats linebacker’s on-field contributions don’t stop at setting a physical tone and making big plays: he’s also the primary play-caller and an excellent communicator that puts his teammates in a position to succeed.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made the Alabama product the 25th overall pick in the 2012 draft after a standout collegiate career.
Now entering his ninth NFL season and with plenty left in the tank, Hightower will go down as one of Belichick’s best draft picks and one of the best linebackers in Patriots history.