Dont’a Hightower: Jonathan Casillas, Akeem Ayers Raise Patriots’ Football IQ

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Rob Ninkovich, Akeem AyersFOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots went from having the NFL’s best linebacker depth to desperation mode in just one year.

The Patriots were downright loaded at the position in 2013, with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower as starters and Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher serving as valuable depth — especially after Mayo and Spikes went down with season-ending injuries.

Spikes left for the Buffalo Bills and Dane Fletcher signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason, and things started getting shallow when Collins and Hightower had to miss games earlier in the 2014 season because of injuries. The Patriots were forced to make a move when Mayo was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.

The Patriots made two low-risk, high reward acquisitions before the trade deadline, grabbing Akeem Ayers from the Tennessee Titans and Jonathan Casillas from the Buccaneers. The Patriots’ linebacker depth has been restocked, and they no longer have to rely on undrafted rookie Deontae Skinner to start in the middle of the defense.

Ayers was a highly productive player for the Titans in his first three years in the league, and Casillas is a versatile option who can defend the pass and contribute on special teams. Hightower is more impressed with both players’ intelligence, however.

“They’re doing really well — two really smart guys,” Hightower said Friday in the Patriots’ locker room. “They stay in the film room, constantly asking questions on the field, making sure they’re getting all the terminology and everything down. I’m definitely proud that — I feel like what they brought to the linebacker room is not just athleticism and the way they play, but a lot more football IQ. A lot easier to talk. Those guys see different things different than we do. It helps out a lot.”

The Patriots have been downright cursed at the position since May, when highly regarded undrafted free agent linebacker James Morris was cut because of a blood clot in his leg. Since then, free agent James Anderson didn’t work out, rookie Cameron Gordon was placed on injured reserve, second-year pro Steve Beauharnais was released with an injury designation because of a concussion and Morris, re-signed, was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.

That left Skinner, who initially was cut before the final preseason game, and special teamer Chris White as the team’s only depth at the position. (It didn’t help that the Patriots didn’t spend a draft pick on a linebacker.)

Hightower, a self-described “football nerd,” doesn’t mind contributing in getting Ayers and Casillas acclimated to the defense quickly.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Hightower said. “Game plans get brought in each and every week. There’s always room for improvement, always questions to be asked. Same way they’re asking questions, I’m asking questions just in a different way.

“Those guys are really smart too, so whenever we’re in there — we’re watching film — it really helps to see guys have a different eye to see what we’re doing.”

Ayers recorded a sack and five pressures in his Patriots debut against the Chicago Bears, and both players are expected to play Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

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