Not even 3 minutes had elapsed on the game clock in Gillette Stadium before Dane Fletcher became the unfortunate victim of what is reportedly a season-ending ACL tear.
The third-year linebacker was running down the sideline on a Zoltan Mesko punt — a play which was ultimately voided by an encroachment call on the Saints — when he came up lame and quickly went to the ground with the knee injury. As much as the loss stings, not only for Fletcher but also the Patriots, it does present an opportunity for others to step up and fill the void.
The immediate and obvious choice would seem to be Dont'a Hightower. After being taken 25th overall in April's NFL draft, Hightower was immediately pegged as the most pro-ready rookie in the Patriots stacked 2012 draft class. So as he continues to progress through training camp, he seems to be the likely choice to take Fletcher's place in the defense — as he already did on Thursday night.
The 22-year-old linebacker has been playing at all three defensive spots during training camp and he ultimately shifted over to the middle linebacker spot against the Saints after Fletcher went down.
The fit seems right for Hightower, although it could offer up some road blocks in the development of what was hoped to be an elite outside rusher in New England defense. Coming out of college, Hightower wasn't necessarily seen as a sack machine — because he wasn't — but he was viewed as a talented outside linebacker with the ability to contain on the edge as well as establish a strong pass-rushing presence.
Hightower is a smart and versatile player and his quick acclimation to the defense, which he displayed with four tackles and a quarterback hit in Thursday's 7-6 win over the Saints, could prove valuable for a team now in need of help on the inside. It may not be the best option for the player long term, but shifting Hightower between the two spots could well be the Patriots best chance to make up for the absence in the middle.
The other option would likely be for free-agent addition and seven-year veteran Bobby Carpenter to take the reigns and make his own mark on the Patriots defense. The former first-round pick — No. 18 by the Cowboys in 2006 — has never quite lived up to the hype of his high draft stature, but Carpenter has established himself as a quality linebacker with the intelligence and instincts to help solidify a defense.
He's played a decent amount of inside linebacker, although primarily in the 3-4 base package, and could translate those skills over to being a more permanent solution on the inside in New England.
It should to be noted that Brandon Spikes, given his full health, will be the starter on the inside for the Patriots come Week 1. But where Fletcher was expected to excel for the Patriots, primarily as an additional interior presence and on special teams, the likes of Hightower, Carpenter and by the looks of Thursday night, even Jeff Tarpinian (six tackles) could now be looked to as viable replacements.