FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s no coincidence that Bill Belichick and the Patriots have drafted linebackers who can cover, stop the run and blitz early two seasons in a row.
In 2012, Dont’a Hightower was drafted No. 25 overall in the first round out of Alabama. He had experience playing inside linebacker, outside linebacker and as a defensive end rushing off the edge. This year, Jamie Collins was the team’s first pick in the draft. Collins had similar versatility at Southern Miss, playing outside linebacker, defensive end and safety.
When New England drafted Collins, Belichick mentioned Hightower’s versatility on multiple occasions.
“It’s similar but I would say different than Hightower, but there’s some similarities,” Belichick said about Collins’ versatility on April 26. “Dont’a did that as well — played inside, played outside, played defensive end in their nickel package at Alabama [in 2011].”
By having versatility on defense, Belichick can choose to play the best 11 players rather than having to fit one player into one specific position. Hightower can play multiple roles in a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
“If he can do multiple things and do them at a high level, maybe he’ll go where he’s needed or maybe he’ll go where he’s best,” Belichick said about Collins on April 27. “It’s similar to what we did with Hightower last year. There are a lot of things he did, what he ended up doing and with [Rob] Ninkovich for that matter. What Rob did one year and what he did another year and what he might do from game to game, it could be a little bit different.”
Ninkovich is another player that can fit into whatever role serves him best from game to game. In 2011, he was the team’s starting strong-side linebacker. In 2012, Hightower took that role, which kicked Ninkovich to strong-side defensive end. Belichick determined that it was important to have Ninkovich on the field in both seasons, even if it might not have been at his best position.
Hightower is glad to be playing for New England because it gives him the opportunity to play many roles. He may have been the team’s starting strong-side linebacker in 2012, but that doesn’t mean that will be his only role this year, just as it wasn’t last year. He had the opportunity to cover and blitz in nickel packages. And he was highly effective at getting after the passer.
According to the website Pro Football Focus, Hightower rushed the passer 65 times as a rookie and pressured the quarterback on 14 occasions. That pass rush productivity ranked him third among 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 50 rushes.
“I feel honored to do that. Whenever they asked me to do it in college, I was happy to do it and especially here with coach Bill Belichick and all the athletes we have around here,” Hightower said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I’m here, because I can do multiple different things. The more you can do the better you can do. That’s something always considered in New England. So, whatever they ask me to do — to rush, to cover, to tackle, to block — whatever they ask me to do, I’m more than willing to do it.”
Just because the Patriots drafted Collins and announced him as a linebacker doesn’t mean that he’ll be on the bench. New England already has a solid linebacker corps of Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. Hightower or Collins can play defensive end, and Ninkovich can play multiple roles as well.
Whoever starts Week 1 at defensive end and linebacker, you’ll know that those are the best players Belichick can throw on the field, even if they’re not playing their prime position. And the players will be happy to help out in whatever way they can. Because that’s the Patriot Way.