Patriots Off-Season Profiles: Dont'a Hightower and the Linebackers
FOXBOROUGH - One of the most consistent strengths of the New England Patriots across their two decade-long dynasty is the ability to draft linebackers who are not only immensely talented and among the best in the entire NFL, but also make for great leaders on the field. From players like Tedy Bruschi to Jerod Mayo, the Patriots have never hurt for captains on the defense. The baton has since passed to Dont'a Hightower and he has been a model Patriot during his career. And when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl two years ago to the Philadelphia Eagles, it seemed like Hightower's absence from injury played a major role in the loss. Luckily for Patriots fans, he returned to form in the 2018-19 season, and we all know how that ended.
Hightower remains at the helm of the linebacker corps for the Patriots, leading a first string of linebackers on the depth chart that also includes Elandon Roberts and breakout star Kyle Van Noy. Backing up these three are Christian Sam, Ja'Whaun Bentley, and Jamie Collins. Collins, of course, is returning to the team after being shockingly traded almost three years ago. The Patriots' linebackers are not the most talented unit of the Patriots defense, but they are the heart of New England's defensive efforts.
A sixth round pick in 2018, Sam missed his rookie season with a season-long injury. What his ultimate contributions to the Patriots will be remain a mystery. Bentley, on the other hand, played in three games last season where he joined in on 14 tackles and recorded one interception. These two sophomores have a lot to prove for the team.
Collins also has a lot to prove, especially to head coach Bill Belichick. Last year, Collins played in and started all sixteen games with the Cleveland Browns and he was in on 104 tackles. They are respectable numbers, to be sure, but his demeanor seems to be the major hurdle to clear to get back in Belichick's good graces.
The first string on, the other hand, doesn't seem to have a lot to prove - they just have to maintain their high level of quality football. Elandon Roberts began to play as a team player last season, recording the majority of his tackles on assists. His quarterback pressure numbers were down, but the space he minimized on the field showed that Roberts played smarter in 2018, rather than harder.
Van Noy posted a career year in 2018 as he was in on 92 tackles, with 55 of them being solo. Van Noy also recorded three and a half sacks on ten quarterback hits during his sixteen starts in the season. He recovered two fumbles and returned one for a touchdown during the season, as well as forcing one fumble during the post-season, along with three sacks in thee playoff games.
Even more exciting than the prospect of another Van Noy campaign is, of course, another season of Hightower. The seven year veteran is coming off a season when he brought his career sack total to 20, his tackle total to 466, and his quarterback hit total to 50. He put up two sacks on five tackles and four quarterback hits during the playoffs as he led the Patriots defense to glory. His on-field vision is unparalleled in the NFL.
The Patriots and their linebackers are a capable bunch and it is going to be very fun to see just how high their ceiling is during the 2019-20 march.
Image via Flickr / JC Ruiz