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New England Patriots 2013 Breakout Candidate: Dont’a Hightower

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have been rebuilding their defense on the fly for years now. The offense has been carrying the load while the defense has used draft pick after draft pick to get back to where it was when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls.

And one of those draft picks, last year’s first-rounder Dont’a Hightower, is ready for a breakout season in 2013.

Hightower, a fourth-year starter and All-American linebacker from the University of Alabama, had an impressive rookie season as a Patriot. He started 13 games last year and recorded 60 tackles with four sacks. His rookie season was very promising, especially considering how hard it can be for young linebackers to come into the league and learn Bill Belichick‘s complex defensive system.

This year, the Patriots expect Hightower to take a step forward and be a leader on the defense. The time he spent in Nick Saban‘s Alabama defense prepared him well for the transition to the NFL, and the year he spent learning from Belichick has prepared him for big things in his sophomore professional season.

One area the Patriots need help in is the pass rush. Their pass defense has been one of the worst in the league the last few years somewhat due to a sub par secondary, but any secondary will have trouble stopping NFL passing attacks when the team can’t pressure the quarterback.

Developing Hightower into an elite pass rusher will go a long way towards fixing that problem. Teamed up with fellow second-year man Chandler Jones, the Patriots have the makings of a young tandem that could terrorize AFC East quarterbacks for years to come.

The Patriots are quietly building one of the better linebacking groups in the league with Hightower at one outside linebacker spot, Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo at the other and Brandon Spikes in the middle. Throw in the always-underrated Rob Ninkovich at the other outside spot when they line up in a 3-4, and you have the beginnings of another great group of linebackers in New England.

2012 was a good start for Dont’a Hightower, and 2013 will be the breakout season for the former first-round pick.

Ben Sullivan is an NFL writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bensullivan52, “Like” him on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.

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