Leading up to the first day of training camp, we’re going to look at the most important Patriots, counting down from 10 to 1.
6. DONT'A HIGHTOWER
Why? For starters, Hightower is one of the toughest players on the team. He played with one shoulder for the final month of the season; he was hampered in the other by a nasty torn labrum. That hurts for a normal guy, but for an inside linebacker in the NFL?? Shot or no shot, the pain had to be excruciating at times. Yet Hightower’s performance didn’t suffer much, and his tackle of Marshawn Lynch down by the goal line came one play before Malcolm Butler’s game-saving interception. On top of that, Hightower’s instincts and overall understanding of the defensive scheme are second to none on the roster. He’s all that, and a bag of chips.
Previous Performance: Hightower was the Patriots' most consistent player last season. Not just on the defensive side of the ball, but on the entire roster. He blossomed from being a run-stopper into being a complete backer, no longer a primary target of opposing passers as they dropped back into coverage. The former Alabama star also got his wish to rush the passer more, and proved worthy: 8 sacks, 9 QB hits and 20 pressures. Hightower and Jamie Collins dancing over the guard/center gap? Sign me up for more. Peyton Manning is still trying to figure it out.
Questions surrounding the player: The only thing that is of concern here is how quickly Hightower recovers from the offseason surgery. He recently said he was ahead of schedule. With questions about where Jerod Mayo is in his recovery, the Pats can ill afford to have Hightower suffer a setback. He’s that important.
Overall Outlook: For was good as Hightower was a season ago, I think he can be even better this time around. He’s a confident kid with all the tools to put himself in the conversation with Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and teammate Collins as the best in the game. In fact, I’d argue he already did.