During the 2012 NFL draft, the New England Patriots traded up with the Cincinnati Bengals to the 21st overall pick to select Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. Jones will likely start as a 4-3 right defensive end for the Patriots in 2012.
New England decided to trade up again four spots later when the Denver Broncos were picking with the 25th overall. The Patriots moved up six spots from 31 to 25 to select Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Dont’a Hightower was expected to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh opted for Stanford right guard David DeCastro instead of taking Hightower. DeCastro was expected to be a top 20 pick, but he fell to Pittsburgh at 24 overall. DeCastro will likely start at right guard for Pittsburgh in 2012 before making an eventual transition to left guard down the road.
New England’s decision to move up for Hightower was an intriguing draft selection because New England already had two starting linebackers with right outside linebacker Jerod Mayo and middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. Hightower is 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 260 pounds and played 3-4 middle linebacker at Alabama. Hightower also had the versatility to be utilized as a 4-3 middle linebacker in the NFL. When Alabama called some 4-3 plays to mix things up, Alabama inserted Hightower in the “Will” linebacker spot at right outside linebacker.
The only place where Hightower could possibly start in New England’s 4-3 scheme is at left outside linebacker. Hightower is slightly unfamiliar with this role with his experience as a 3-4 middle linebacker at Alabama. How can Hightower make this transition to the NFL?
Patriots fans should not have to worry about Hightower making this transition. Hightower was named defensive captain for multiple seasons at Alabama in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, Alabama’s defense ranked first overall out of 120 FBS teams in all five major defensive categories. Alabama was ranked first in scoring defense, total defense, run defense, pass defense, and pass efficiency defense.
Hightower recorded 81 total tackles, 37 of those being solo tackles, 3 sacks, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and 8 quarterback pressures when being used as a rusher to get to the quarterback. Hightower can also drop back into zone coverage.
From a talent standpoint, Hightower does provide an upgrade at left outside linebacker over current starter Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich may have backup ability at linebacker compared to Hightower. Ninkovich can teach Hightower how to conduct himself properly in the locker room and around other teammates with his veteran presence.
Hightower will turn out to be a great starter at linebacker for New England. He can immediately play at left outside linebacker. Hightower could play right outside linebacker or middle linebacker if Mayo or Spikes goes down with an injury.
Some will question the Hightower pick because the Patriots could have addressed a bigger need at safety or defensive tackle. The safety class was really weak after Mark Barron. The other thing to consider was that the Patriots could have taken a defensive tackle in round 2.
I give the Hightower pick an A grade. Hightower is a premium talent that fell mainly due to the demand defensive lineman. Seven defensive linemen were selected between picks 11-19 on the first day of the 2012 NFL Draft. You cannot forget that the Patriots took Jones at 21 as well.