There’s no better year than now for the New England Patriots defense to finally step up in the post-Super Bowl era. While it was this unit coupled with Bill Belichick‘s wizardry that played as big a role as Tom Brady in securing three Super Bowls in four years during the early aughts, there’s no doubt that Brady has carried this team to double-digit wins in the years since.
Now Brady is pushing 40, all reliable deep threats are gone, Aaron Hernandez is in trouble, Rob Gronkowski constantly in surgery, and this talented young Patriots front-seven must step up. And this could all start with second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The team’s top pick in 2012 at 25th overall, as NESN’s Doug Kyed notes, had a Pro Football Focus pass-rush productivity rating that placed Hightower third among 4-3 outside backers with at least 50 rushes last season. Along with linebackers and ends like Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, Hightower’s versatility will give Belichick plenty of room for creative wrinkles with this front-seven along with their more single-role defensive lineman and backers.
Collins, New England’s top 2013 pick, will fellow the method of grooming that was so successful for Hightower, which should only benefit Hightower in his current role being developed in camp: “It’s similar but I would say different than Hightower, but there’s some similarities. Dont’a did that as well — played inside, played outside, played defensive end in their nickel package at Alabama [in 2011],” Belichick said earlier this offseason, via NESN.