If you listened to even five minutes of sports talk radio during the Pats season, you could not help but hear a constant refrain – Dont’a Hightower is not a good football player. Much of the criticism stemmed from the view that Hightower doesn’t jump off of the TV screen and make huge plays. The talking heads cited the fact that at points during the season, Hightower had the “green dot” (coach communication) removed from his helmet. It didn’t matter to them that Hightower was shifted all over the field, from position to position. They had their talking point and they ran with it, in spite of what was actually happening on the field.
Now, I will grant that Hightower doesn’t make “Ray Lewis” plays- devastating hits that break the opponent’s will and fire up the faithful. What Hightower did was to simply make tackles- a team-leading 97 of them, 55 solo.
Is he somewhat limited in pass coverage? Yes he is; but which linebacker wearing the flying Elvis on their helmet was outstanding in that area?
Hightower moved around-playing strong side, weak side and outside linebacker. The expectation is that a first round draft pick should pick things up more quickly, regardless of position switches. The expectation is that a player who was a captain on a National Championship team at Alabama should be propelling himself all over the field, devastating opponents. While he has not been a superstar, the reality is he has not been a bust. He will be 24 next season, his third year in the league. I believe that because he was so asked to be so versatile this year, he will play at a Pro Bowl level next year.
Adios Brandon Spikes. While he makes tackles like one of those pneumatic stun-guns they use to daze cattle for slaughter, he often overruns the ball and he cannot cover on passing downs. There also seems to be a disconnect between Spikes and BB. Did it strike anybody as odd that he and the team agreed on IR placement after he was late for practice? Somebody will overpay him and he’ll be a solid two down player in a four down league.
At the end of the regular season, and in the post season, Jamie Collins, looked like a player whose ability and instincts began to blend perfectly with his understanding of the system. He was all over the field, registering seven tackles. While nobody on the Pats D that day could be termed a disruptive force, Collins was the closest they had. His effort against Indianapolis, six tackles a sack and a freakishly athletic interception, had fans salivating at the future. Collins was a 6’3”, 210 lb “athlete” coming out of high school. He began as a safety and when he began to fill out he moved to linebacker, then DE at Southern Miss.
Jerod Mayo was a classic case of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. The D missed his intelligence, his steady presence, and his solid tackling. While there are certainly times when he makes too many tackles beyond the line of scrimmage, as opposed to behind it, he earns all of the accolades he receives.
Dane Fletcher and Steve Beauharnais are end of the roster guys, who can be easily replaced or kept for the right contract. Fletcher is a free agent who knows the system, but will never amount to more than a depth guy. He has speed, but below average play making ability. Beauharnais showed little in his limited time on the field to justify even being a seventh round pick. Maybe his magical Rutgers pedigree will show through some day; I, however, will not put off any plans waiting for it.
Free Agent they should pursue: Pat Angerer, LB Indianapolis. He is a three- down tackling machine who should come a bit cheaper as he is coming off of two consecutive seasons where he ended up on IR. Despite being hampered by a knee injury this season that limited him to 11 games, Angerer had 63 tackles. He is an instinctive disruptive player who will be a steal.
Player they should target in the draft: Chris Borland, Wisconsin (round 3 or 4). The Patriots should be able to fill depth and holes through free agency and the return of Mayo, but if they do choose to draft a linebacker it is this young man. Borland, who looks like he was the kid in high school who was able to buy beer at 17 without the store clerk even blinking, had more than 300 tackles for the Badgers; additionally, he’s the all-time leader in forced fumbles. If there is a team whose turnover magic seemed to disappear last year, this tough, slightly undersized (see Zach Thomas) playmaker is the choice.