FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went into some familiar territory with his second first-round pick Thursday night, selecting Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower with the 25th pick. Hightower starred on the national championship defense for Nick Saban, who is a close friend of Belichick's.
The Patriots traded up for the second time in a matter of minutes, too. They sent the 31st pick and their fourth-rounder (No. 126) to grab Hightower.
The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder had 81 tackles, three sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, one interception, one blocked field goal, three passes defensed and eight quarterback pressures in 2011.
Hightower is an excellent linebacker who has versatility to play at any position. He's a natural inside linebacker who is all over the ball, but he was used on the edge at times, too. He plays with a mean streak, and he's a natural leader.
It depends on the Patriots' base. If they use a 4-3, Hightower could play at strong side linebacker with Brandon Spikes in the middle and Jerod Mayo on the weak side. That might be the best group of 4-3 linebackers in the league in the near future.
If the Patriots use a 3-4, Hightower might float around depending on the package, but he could be a rush linebacker while Mayo and Spikes stay inside. There are tons of possibilities.
One more key: The Patriots' defense really dropped off in 2011 when Mayo and Spikes went down with injuries, so Hightower gives them more frontline depth to ensure such a drop-off shouldn't happen. It's a terrific pick.
The Patriots made some great strides on defense Thursday night, and they should be excited about their performance in the draft. It will turn out to be one of the most memorable draft nights of Belichick's tenure.
Oddly enough, in Belichick's tenure, the Patriots had only traded up in the first round twice before Thursday (2002 and 2003), when they also did it twice. Now, they've only got two picks remaining in the draft — Nos. 48 and 62 in the second round. Now, this could mean they could trade out of those two spots to accumulate some later picks, but so it goes. With this performance, the Patriots improved their defense about as much as they could have hoped in the first round.
"I like to watch a lot of film on Patrick Willis, [Brian] Urlacher, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, a lot of the big-name guys that play fast with a high motor."
— Hightower, on the NFL linebackers he tries to model his game after.
Have a question for Jeff Howe? Send it to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.
Photo via College Press Box