Patriots: 10 long-term positives from 2015

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Dont'a Hightower Patriots
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5. Continued elite inside linebacker play from Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower

You aren’t going to find a better pair of inside linebackers in the NFL than Collins and Hightower.

Starting with Collins, it’s pretty amazing that he led the Patriots in tackles (89) despite missing an entire one-fourth of the season with that mystery illness. In addition, Collins racked up 5.5 sacks and led the entire NFL with five forced fumbles. He also recovered a fumble and returned it for one of the defense’s two touchdowns on the season.

From the Jamie Collins vault:

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Collins is a rare specimen with his blazing speed, surprising bulk and pure athletic ability. A case could be made that he is the most talented player on the Patriots’ defense. He should be viewed as an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

One could also make the argument that Hightower is the most essential member of the Patriots’ defense. After all, Hightower is the command center of the unit; he can be seen barking out orders pre-snap, and his excellent instincts in run defense were a major reason why the Patriots surrendered the ninth-fewest rushing yards in 2015.

Both Collins and Hightower will begin the 2016 season at just 26 years of age.

Next: 4. Star power and depth at defensive end