One of the hardest things about trying to stack players on the list of the Top 50 Players Under Bill Belichick (to be unveiled beginning Mon., June 28) was deciding how much weight to put on high-leverage plays in the biggest moments.
Those “If not for that play, the Patriots don’t win that Super Bowl ...”
Which brings us to Dont’a Hightower. In 2015, I had him all the way down at 46. This is what I wrote at that time.
46. Dont'a Hightower
Years With Patriots: 2012-2014 | Games: 42 | Playoff Games: 7 | Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)
We can talk about Darrelle Revis and Tom Brady and Malcolm Butler and all the players who leap quickly to mind as either being responsible for getting the Patriots to Super Bowl 49 or winning it. But believe this: The Patriots weren’t in Arizona for that game without Dont'a Hightower.
Statistically, Hightower’s just getting warmed up. He’s only got 11 sacks in three years and he has yet to top 100 tackles in a season. Honestly, as recently as the middle of 2013 he was a media punching bag as he struggled to replace Jerod Mayo in the middle of the Patriots defense.
By the end of that season, however, Hightower had improved as rapidly as any defensive player I can remember. He was the best defender on the field for the Patriots in the 2013 playoffs.
When 2014 began, Hightower was going to be used more liberally in the pass rush, not dropping in coverage and stuffing the run. But Mayo got hurt and Hightower went back to the middle of the defense and -- with the team running a 4-2-5 -- he and Jamie Collins were Pro Bowl-level players. On the play preceding Butler’s Super Bowl saving pick, Hightower jammed up Marshawn Lynch at the Patriots 1. It’s a play few will recall as time passes, but it deserves notice. Especially since Hightower made it with a torn labrum, an injury he suffered in Green Bay and played with for weeks.
I was wrong about few people recalling the Marshawn Lynch tackle. Especially since Hightower stacked an even more legendary Super Bowl play on top in SB51 and then was a force of nature in the SB53 win over the Rams, and the case could easily be made he was deserving of MVP that day.
Without the Lynch tackle, no Super Bowl 49. Without the strip-sack when the Patriots were down 28-12 with 8:48 left, no Super Bowl 51. Without a masterful performance in the middle of the defense? Eh, they probably still would have won Super Bowl 53.
So Hightower’s going up our list. But how high does 'High' go? And does he go ahead of the player I find him most comparable to, Willie McGinest, who was No. 12 in 2015?
Both men brought so much to not just the defense but the team. Both have that strong, silent leadership that comes with being the biggest, strongest, fastest, smartest and nastiest player on the defense. Enforcers on the field and in the locker room. Tone-setters. But neither just wandered around tearing heads off -- even if they could have. They played the defense as it was designed and took care of their job until the time came to “make a play.”
“Playing with High, I know what he's about,” Devin McCourty said when asked about the two men. “We were just talking about this yesterday, consistency. He said, ‘I go out there and I just try to be consistent. I want everybody around me to know what you're gonna get from me, each play. Sometimes I'll make the big play. But most of the time, I'm going to be where I'm supposed to be.’
“I hear him say that and then I remember a year ago, two years ago Willie Mac came in and he was talking to the guys about setting the edge of the defense. He was like, ‘All of those force calls on safety force … I didn’t care about all that. I had to force, no matter what. If I was in the C-gap, I took the C-gap and the D-gap out of it. And I was just thinking, ‘These are the tone-setters of the defense. These are guys that are just going to knock people around.’ ”
McGinest was the fourth overall pick in 1994. He served under Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll and -- as a young, talented leader -- saw the messaging whipsaw back and forth between those two men. This list, though, is about what went on under Bill Belichick. And when Belichick came in, McGinest was his locker room staff sergeant.
I so clearly remember the day at Bryant College when Belichick compared McGinest to Lawrence Taylor. At that juncture in his career, McGinest was -- in public and media perception -- a little bit of a disappointment. He’d gotten off to a fast start under Parcells but in 1997 and 1998, he played in 20 of 32 games and had 5.5 sacks. And in the summer of ’98 he signed a huge deal (for the time) that he really wasn’t living up to in the final years of Pete.
Looking at the 2015 list, Scott Zolak said, “I gotta go all the way to No. 12 before I get to my man Willie McGinest!? I go to the criteria. The importance of being a Patriot, establishing the culture, running the locker room. And then ultimately, when it really matters, producing on the field.”
So which great goes first on the list?
“I think McGinest just because he's a foundational player,” said former Patriot tight end Christian Fauria. “I just think that I think there's something to that. I think there's something to the Lewis and Clark Expedition type thing. We kind of blazed the trail first. We set the rules and regulations. I feel there is an added little feather in your cap for those guys.
“When I came here, I was in Seattle for seven years,” Fauria continued. “I was always searching for this type of atmosphere, which I thought was so significant, and such a big reason of why they were winning. None of these players were established back then. So I remember coming in the first year, I was like, ‘Wow, they have a ton of leaders. Not just a couple, they have a ton.’ There were so many guys who could go on and be a captain on another team. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is perfect.’ I was a captain. I was captain in college, I was captain high school, I was captain in Seattle so that type of atmosphere was important. Willie was a big part of that. I definitely give the nod to Willie and it's no disrespect. Hightower is phenomenal."
Deion Branch? Any input?
“That's a tough one, I'll leave that up to you,” said the SB39 MVP. “We can say that Hightower has had more impactful games throughout his career than Willie, when we look at the highest games talking about the Super Bowl. But we can't discredit Willie, because they didn't make it to the Super Bowl, four or five times the way Hightower has played in them.”
On a list with myriad close calls between incredible players, the Hightower-McGinest debate is one of the best.
Editor's note: Tom E. Curran's Top 50 players under Bill Belichick, 2.0, will be released beginning Monday, June 28 right here on NBCSportsBoston.com.