4. Dont’a Hightower
2015 story: Hightower worked through a spell of injuries in 2015, appearing in 12 regular season games and recording 61 tackles, 3.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, a recovered fumble and two passes defended. He is the AFC’s Luke Kuechly.
Why he’s essential: Hightower is the control center of the Patriots’ defense, calling the shots in the middle of the field and usually being around the ball carrier when he’s tackled. In recent years, Hightower has improved his coverage ability as well as his interior pass rushing.
What would happen if Hightower got hurt in 2016: More pressure would be put on Jamie Collins to assume the inside linebacker duties, and there would also be greater roles for Jonathan Freeny and Shea McClellin as depth linebackers. Furthermore, the Patriots’ run defense and interior pass rush would suffer as a result of Hightower’s absence.
Recent news about Hightower: When asked about a possible extension coming together in the near future, Hightower deflected attention and implored he’s focused on solely football right now.
Next: 3. Jamie Collins