Entering his ninth season in the NFL, New England Patriots inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower remains the glue that holds the defense all together.
It’s sort of strange to think that Dont’a Hightower has only been in the league for eight years.
Make no mistake, that’s a very long time in NFL years — especially considering the average career length for most NFL players is just over three years. The fact that Hightower is about to triple that average this coming season is certainly something that he and his family should celebrate.
That said, doesn’t it just feel like Hightower has been around for ages now?
Especially when you consider that Matthew Slater has been around since 2008, Julian Edelman’s been here since 2009, and Devin McCourty has been roaming the secondary since 2010, it seems like Hightower’s name should be included in there somewhere in one of those years.
But the former Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker has “only” been at this game in the pros since 2012, when the New England Patriots took him No. 25 overall with their first-round pick.
Hightower had the benefit of playing alongside two terrific (and very different) linebackers his rookie year in Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. While Mayo was more cerebral and versatile as a player — and the unquestioned leader of the defense at the time — Spikes was a pure, hard-hitting, run-stuffing athletic freak.
Hightower has grown into a little bit of both of them ever since.
He’s since taken over the inside/middle linebacker “Mike” role that Mayo had before him (and Tedy Bruschi before Mayo) and is tasked with relaying defensive calls and signals to his teammates in the heart of New England’s scheme.
But he also has Spikes’ ability to light up opposing running backs and tight ends trying to get separation in the center of the field.
More than anything, though, Hightower is probably known league-wide and around the country as being a player who rises to the occasion on the game’s greatest stage.
His shoestring tackle of Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl 49 saved what could have been a game-winning touchdown for the Seahawks, and his strip sack of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51 was arguably the most important play of that epic comeback win (perhaps alongside Edelman’s miraculous catch).
Maybe that’s why it feels like Hightower has been around forever — he’s already so firmly embedded in New England Patriots lore and legend, and he’s still just 30 years old.
Best-case scenario projection for 2020
Hightower continues leading the defense — both verbally and physically by example. He proves to be an excellent role model for young linebackers/defensive ends like Chase Winovich, Anfernee Jennings, and Josh Uche, and helps groom these and other youngsters so they can carry on the proud tradition of the New England Patriots front-seven.
If there’s been one knock on Hightower throughout his NFL career, it’s been health. He’s only played a full 16-game regular season once in eight years (2013), so in a best-case scenario projection for 2020, he makes it through his second full season as a pro unscathed.
It’d also be nice to see Hightower collect some more individual hardware. He was a Pro Bowler and Second-team All Pro in 2016 after he put together a fine body of work leading into New England’s fifth Super Bowl-winning campaign.
Last season, he was a bit of a surprise Pro Bowl nod. He was certainly worthy after racking up 5.5 sacks (his second-most ever), 71 tackles (his third-most ever), and four passes defended (his most ever).
But even he seemed a bit taken aback to earn the nomination over some of the other defenders on a talented New England team last year. For example, guys like Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, and Kyle Van Noy all had either more sacks or interceptions than Hightower.
Earning a third Pro Bowl nod would be very impressive indeed this season for Hightower.
Worst-case scenario projection for 2020
It has to be injuries, right?
The odds are against Hightower making it through all 16 games healthy — simply because he hasn’t shown us anything yet to instill much confidence.
In fairness to him, his hard-hitting style and propensity for finding and tracking down the ball-carrier also lends itself to putting him in harm’s way. Kind of like Rob Gronkowski, you have to take the bad with the good when it comes to Hightower: both players are going to throw their bodies around the field to make an impact, and sometimes they’re going to get hurt while doing so.
Outside of injury, age is the other thing working against Dont’a Hightower. Being 30 years old is nothing for us civilians, but being 30 in the NFL means you’re officially on the wrong side of the age spectrum (unless you’re Tom Brady or a placekicker).
Hopefully, neither age nor injuries slows down the New England Patriots captain during his ninth season as a pro.