Dont’a Hightower could go back to his roots as a pass rusher during his third season with the New England Patriots.
Hightower was utilized as a third-down rusher in college at Alabama, and he recorded four sacks in that role during his junior season in 2011. If he had his choice with the Patriots, he’d be lined up on the edge, not dropping back in coverage, on third down.
“Third down, honestly, I’d — just to put it out there — I would much rather rush or blitz than cover — zone, man or whatever,” Hightower said Thursday at Gillette Stadium. “Third down is a fun down whether you’re covering or whatever you’re doing because you can do different kinds of things and come at the quarterback all kind of different ways. As long as I’m able to be on the field on third down, whatever they ask me to do, I’m more than willing to do it.”
It would make sense for the Patriots to utilize Hightower in a pass-rushing role. He’s one of the most effective blitzers on the team, even if he’s been limited to just over five pass rushes per game during his two-year career.
Hightower improved in coverage in 2013, but with Brandon Spikes, who struggled in coverage, gone to the Buffalo Bills and Jerod Mayo, one of the team’s better coverage linebackers, coming back from injury, there are better options on the Patriots to drop back on third down, including second-year linebacker Jamie Collins.
Hightower, at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, has abnormal size for a linebacker, especially one who drops back to cover running backs and tight ends. His size would be better suited to blow through blockers to get to the quarterback.
Hightower might have some competition among his starting linebackers to be utilized in a pass-rushing role, however, since Belichick typically has split blitzes evenly among his linebackers. Collins recorded 10 sacks during his senior year at Southern Miss and recorded a pressure on 23.53 percent of his pass-rushing snaps in 2013 — only bested among linebackers by Hightower’s 26.76 pressure percentage.
“The same thing everybody else as seen, you know, what he did in college,” Hightower said about what he’s seen from Collins as a pass rusher. “He hasn’t missed a step. He has a quick first step, quick hands, he’s strong, he’s explosive. He’s just a great all-around athlete.”
The Patriots are expected to add a linebacker or pass rusher in the draft, but their need for a third defensive end to rotate with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich might be lessened if Collins or Hightower can take over that role. Both players have experience at getting after the quarterback, and their versatility gives head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio some flexibility come draft day.