Curran: Hard to ignore Hightower's massive impact in win vs. Bengals

Curran: Hard to ignore Hightower's massive impact in win vs. Bengals

FOXBORO -- There was a play last week in Cleveland when Dont'a Hightower arrived just after a tackle was made and hurdled the accident scene.

That move indicated to me that Hightower’s knee, which cost him two games and left him a little slowed against the Bills, was back to normal. He said as much last week when I asked him about it.

Sunday against the Bengals, he did more than hurdle the carnage. Hightower created it. Without his running mate, Jamie Collins, next to him Hightower took it to the next level with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks and -- for the second straight week -- a forced safety on an A-gap blitz.

Hightower made himself scarce after the game but there was no shortage of teammates ready to talk about the massive impact the versatile linebacker makes.


“I get to go against him in practice every day and he’s just, he’s a great player,” said Tom Brady. “I’ve seen him grow from where he was at as a rookie, and then to take on a leadership role. That linebacker position is so important. Every good defense has a good middle linebacker. I’ve played against a lot of great ones, and Dont’a has been just a privilege to play with. He gets those other guys going, between he and Jamie [Collins] and the secondary; the middle of the defense with Patrick [Chung] and Devin [McCourty], Duron [Harmon] and the corners. Up front, we’re figuring out a way to get to the quarterback, so we’re doing a great job. It’s fun to watch those guys play because I get sick of practicing against them and seeing them make plays on me, so it’s nice to see them make plays on the other team.”

There were four plays in particular Sunday that showcased different aspects of Hightower’s skill set. All, though, had this in common: His smarts and anticipation.

On the first, he came off the left edge of the offensive line and, seeing Bengals running back Gio Bernard looking to turn the corner around the right end, Hightower flattened out and – in a blink – was on Bernard and dropping him for a loss.

On the fourth-and-goal play from the Patriots 1, Hightower wasn’t in on the initial hit, but he powered his man back and through the hole Bernard was trying to find, cluttering it up so it was just a mass of humans nobody was getting through.

In the second half, Bernard caught a pass in the right flat at the Patriots’ 8. Hightower made it to the sideline before Bernard could string anything together and ran him out of bounds for a 3-yard gain.

Finally, on the sack/safety, Hightower came on an A-gap blitz that was similar to the one in Cleveland that caused a safety. Except this time, he delayed and made sure he had no other responsibilities before hitting the gas and exploding into Andy Dalton’s face before the Cincinnati quarterback had a chance to react.

“He’s awesome,” said veteran defensive end Chris Long. “He’s such a smart football player, he’s really physical, he’s really athletic. He creates matchup problems with people and as a teammate he’s always, from day one being a new guy, he’s always helped me get lined up. [He’s] never too busy to answer a question or help out, so he’s a selfless guy and that’s why he fits right in . . . he’s a real football player and that’s the best compliment I can give someone.”

As breathtakingly athletic as Collins can be, Hightower’s ability to be a factor in the interior running game and his ability to take command of the defense sets him apart. The complementary abilities they bring actually make them one of the league’s most daunting combos.

“Our linebackers, Jamie, Dont'a, they're two of the best in the league,” said Harmon. “Any time we can have those guys out there, they just continue to create havoc. They make plays, they make it easier for us, especially me, the quarterback can't look off as long when Dont'a's all in his face -- him and Jamie. Having him on the field is a plus. And when you get both of them on the field it's a double-plus.”

That last part, of course, is the sticky issue going forward. Both play a position that wears a body out. A hip kept Collins down on Sunday. Both are Pro Bowl-level players in their prime and both are free agents at the end of the year. There’s no doubting the Patriots want them to stick around, but coming to the right agreement for both sides is not going to be easy.  

Nobody saw Hightower’s potential earlier than Bill Belichick, who had this to say Sunday, “High’s got a lot of skills, a lot of things he can do. He can blitz, he can rush, he can cover, he can play the run, he can run and play in coverage and he’s smart, too. He’s pretty versatile. He can handle a lot of different assignments and not only just knowing what to do but instinctively he handles those well. He’s got good feel, and rush techniques, and leverage and that kind of thing. Same thing – it could be in the passing game. He’s a good player and he had some big plays for us today; no question.”

He has a lot of those games. 

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

File Photo

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

There's one gigantic hole to fill on the Patriots offensive line.

Replacing Nate Solder is no easy task and it's not exactly clear how the Pats will yet.

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport was first to report the Patriots would like to bring back Waddle or Fleming.

It now appears that one of the former backup tackle is taking a serious look elsewhere, according to Ian Rapoport. 

It's not the best offensive line free agency market this season, so the Pats may prefer to bring back a guy they are familar with.

If Fleming is off the board, Waddle still remains as an option for New England.



How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

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How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

How highly do the Patriots value their mid-round draft picks? We'll find out as the run on NFL free agents continues this week. 

If Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio plan to make any signings from outside the organization, they'll have to factor into that decision what they will be giving up. Money and cap space matter . . . sure. But there is draft capital at stake.  

The Patriots are currently projected to land two third-round compensatory picks in 2019 after losing both Malcolm Butler and Nate Solder in free agency. There's real value there, and the decision-makers at One Patriot Place may be reluctant to give that up. 

Recent Patriots third-round picks include Derek Rivers, Tony Garcia, Joe Thuney, Jacoby Brissett, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. 


Before we get into how the Patriots might lose those third-round comp picks if they remain active in free-agency, it's worth noting how comp picks are assigned. 

The compensatory-pick formula the league uses has never been published, but we know the basics. It's based on free agents lost and free agents acquired in a given year by a particular team. The level of those players is taken into consideration -- based on salary, playing time and other factors -- and then picks are issued to teams who have lost more (or better) free agents than they acquired. Only free agents whose contracts have expired (not players who've been released) qualify for the compensatory-pick formula.'s Nick Korte is the best in the business when it comes to predicting how many picks teams will land based on their free-agent losses and acquisitions, and he has the Patriots down for two third-rounders in 2019 and nothing else. 

That may sound surprising given the Patriots lost Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola in addition to Butler and Solder, but that's the way the formula broke, according to Korte. The Adrian Clayborn signing (given a sixth-round value by OTC) cancelled out the Amendola loss (sixth-round value). The Matt Tobin signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Lewis loss (sixth-round value). And the Jeremy Hill signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Johnson Bademosi loss (sixth-round value). 

Why do Tobin and Hill cancel out Amendola and Lewis, despite being lower-value moves? Here's how OTC describes the process. (Free agents who qualify for the comp-pick formula are known as Compensatory Free Agents or CFAs.)

1. A CFA gained by a team cancels out the highest-valued available CFA lost that has the same round valuation of the CFA gained.

2. If there is no available CFA lost in the same round as the CFA gained, the CFA gained will instead cancel out the highest-available CFA lost with a lower round value.

3. A CFA gained will only cancel out a CFA lost with a higher draft order if there are no other CFAs lost available to cancel out. 

That final point is key. An example? The Seahawks recently signed CFA Jaron Brown, a seventh-round value. The only Seahawks "CFAs lost" available to cancel out the move were Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham, both fourth-round values. Even though there's a three-round difference between Brown and Richardson, per Korte's projections, those moves still will cancel each other out. 

With that in mind, the Patriots may want to tread lightly when it comes to signing free agents who will qualify toward the comp-pick formula. They could lose out on the third-rounders they've received for Solder and Butler even if they sign a lower-value free agent.

Players like Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro or Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman would count toward the comp-pick formula. Would their value to the team be such that losing a 2019 third-round pick wouldn't matter to the Patriots? Or would their comp-pick impact hurt their chances of being picked up in New England? My guess would be the latter. 

The good news for the Patriots is that re-signing their own players -- like offensive tackles LaAdrian Waddle and/or Cam Fleming -- doesn't impact the comp-pick setup. Neither does signing players who've been released, meaning the Patriots could theoretically make a splash by signing Ndamukong Suh or Eric Ebron and they'd retain their comp picks.

Given the Patriots made just four draft picks last year, and since comp picks can be traded now (that rule was changed last year), it would come as little surprise if retaining those picks weighed heavily on Belichick and Caserio's decisions as they move through the remainder of the offseason.