Unitl Tuesday, Dont'a Hightower's name was often preceded by the words "Pro Bowl caliber linebacker." Now the "caliber" portion can be lopped off.
It was announced on Tuesday that the 26-year-old 'backer, in many ways the centerpiece of the Patriots defense, has been named to his first Pro Bowl. Hightower joins teammates Tom Brady, Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty in earning that honor this year.
Hightower was voted in as a captain before the regular season, and he has taken on more of a leadership role in his fifth year. He has played in 12 of 14 games for the Patriots, starting in all of them. With 64 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble he has helped Bill Belichick's defense -- which is currently the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL -- round into form. His understanding of the scheme and his ability to align his teammates has been critical as the team has worked in first-year Patriots Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Elandon Roberts at the linebacker level following the trade of Jamie Collins to the Browns in late October.
Hightower is in the final year of his rookie contract and his slated to hit unrestricted free agency after the season.
For McCourty, it's the third time he's been selected as a Pro Bowler. He was named to the Pro Bowl back in 2010 as a rookie cornerback. One of the team's best tacklers, he has put his versatility on display this season by patrolling the deep middle of the field effectively as well as moving down into the box to cover receiving options one-on-one. His jarring fourth-down hit on Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas in the fourth quarter of Sunday's win was one of the key plays in the game that secured the team's eighth-straight division title. Like Hightower, McCourty is essential to the team's communication on the back end of the defense and regularly draws praise from his teammates for his football IQ.
For Brady, it is the 12th time he has been named to the Pro Bowl, and his eighth straight since 2009. The 39-year-old has put up impressive numbers despite missing the first four games of the season while serving his suspension for Deflategate: He's completed 66.9 percent of his passes and is averaging 8.24 yards per attempt; he has 22 touchdown passes against just two interceptions; and even after posting a sub-70.0 rating against the Broncos over the weekend, he has the second-best rating in the league at 109.7.
Slater is also on an impressive run, making the NFL's version of the all-star game for the sixth consecutive time as one of the game's best when it comes to kick coverage. He advocated for fellow special-teamer Nate Ebner to be named a Pro Bowler on Tuesday.
Of course, nice as the honor is, none of the Patriots are hoping they'll be eligible to play in the game. It will be held in Orlando on Jan. 29, one week before Super Bowl LI.