With the loss of New England Patriots star linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season, the depth at linebacker has been crucial to the defensive success. Many people looked at 2012 first-round pick Dont’a Hightower to step up in Mayo’s absence and fill the role of the pass-defending LB, since the veteran Brandon Spikes is too slow to keep up with most receivers in the NFL. In his time in the league, however, Hightower has been somewhat of a disappointment in some people’s eyes. In the 2013 season, he has given up 21 passes on 39 throws where he was in coverage, worth 199 yards and a TD.
This is the most among Patriots linebackers, although to be fair, he is the primary linebacker in pass coverage without Mayo and he is also dealing with the loss of NT Vince Wilfork. Without Wilfork, the Patriots don’t have a defensive tackle that can eat up multiple defenders. Since Chris Jones and Joe Vellano can only each eat up one defender at a time, there are more blockers moving down-field for Hightower to deal with. Even the casual observer can tell that Hightower has a hard time shedding blocks, which has impeded his progress in defending receivers. While this is partly on him for not shedding the blocks quickly, a big part of the problem is the defensive line. Jones and Vellano should not be blamed since they are just rookies, but it is the absence of Wilfork that is causing a problem with the linebackers in coverage.
Despite the excuse of a weaker defensive line, some argue that Hightower still has not lived up to his potential. In 26 games played, he only has five sacks and no forced fumbles or interceptions. In comparison, reserve linebacker Dane Fletcher, who got put in the game against Denver after Hightower got sent to the bench, has a forced fumble and two sacks this season alone. As a player that got drafted 25th overall in the 2012 draft out of Alabama, fans are expecting more out of Hightower. Patriots Radio color analyst Scott Zolak had this to say about Hightower:
“When you’re that damn good and you’re that damn talented and you get drafted where you get drafted, you should be giving more than what he is giving you right now…I know he’s a liability in coverage, but it’s not like they are running slot receivers past him. At some point you should be able to run with a couple tight ends, and he’s getting gassed by tight ends.”
Coach Bill Belichick has obviously seen the struggles of Hightower, since he has played Dane Fletcher over him mid-way through the Denver game and part of the Houston game. Despite his struggles, the important thing to keep in mind is that he’s only sophomore in the NFL. Not only is he not very experienced, but he’s being thrust into a complex and high-pressure role to fill the void of Jerod Mayo. While Fletcher may give the Patriots a different spark that will help the defense for now, Hightower should develop into a long-term success if mentored properly. He has tremendous athleticism and a lot of potential if properly utilized by his coaches. In short, it’s too early to give up on a draft pick this high. If he doesn’t improve by next season, then the term “bust” is warranted, but for now the term “underachiever” is more appropriate.