Patriots Mailbag: Dont’a Hightower Headlines NFL’s Best Linebacker Corps


Find a person who’s excited about Thursday night’s New England Patriots preseason finale, and I’ll show you a liar.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited about the end of the preseason, because it means the start of real football. But the NFL could and probably should eliminate the fourth preseason game.

What is it accomplishing, exactly? The NFL forces its teams to cut their rosters from 90 players to 75 two days before this game, which means those organizations will be forced to risk injuries to potential starters and backups in this meaningless game.

I suppose I get it. It’s essentially one last game for players who inevitably will be cut to put on their résumés once they hit the waiver wire, but it’s unnecessary and boring, as most teams have the majority of their regular-season roster decided and just want to plan for Week 1. This game is the ultimate nuisance for the Patriots, since they play their Week 1 game on Thursday night, which means an abbreviated schedule to begin the season.

I’m done whining. Let’s get into this week’s mailbag:

@DougKyedNESN From what I have seen of the pre-season, the Pats D looks very good and very promising. Your opinion?

They won’t be as great as last season, but if they stay healthy, they can still be very good.

They lost some tremendous players but also added potential starters Jabaal Sheard, Malcom Brown, Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher. Their success will depend on players who didn’t make a huge impact last season, however, like Malcolm Butler, Jerod Mayo and Dominique Easley.

Butler isn’t Darrelle Revis (no one is), but he’s going to be the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback, and he has to play like it for this defense to excel. Mayo suffered a season-ending injury six games into the 2014 season, and he was back to playing at a high level in the Patriots’ third preseason game, making consecutive run stuffs. Easley’s rookie season essentially was a wash after he was a first-round pick, but he’s shown flashes of absolute dominance this summer.

The Patriots’ pass rush will be better than it was last season thanks to Sheard, Easley and rookies Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom. The run defense could take a hit after the loss of Vince Wilfork, but Sheard has proved to be an excellent run defender during the preseason.

The linebacking corps will be even better than last season as long as Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins all stay healthy. This probably is the best 4-3 starting linebacker corps in the NFL, and it’s difficult to say who is even the best player in the bunch. Collins is the biggest freak athlete, and when he fully harnesses all of his raw skills, he could be special. Mayo is the defensive leader, and he’s one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the league with underrated blitzing skills. Hightower might be the complete package right now. He rarely messed up last season, and he combines excellent pass-rushing skills with rare run-thumping ability. He’s merely OK covering tight ends, but he’s more than serviceable against running backs.

Collins was named in ESPN’s Top 100 players list, with which I agreed, but I thought Hightower was a snub.

The secondary obviously won’t be as good as it was last year, since Revis is gone, but they have the potential to be solid to solid-plus. Devin McCourty is one of the best free safeties in the NFL, Patrick Chung has settled into his role, and Butler has been great this summer. Their success will depend on Brown and whoever head coach Bill Belichick picks to play the No. 3 cornerback role, whether that’s Logan Ryan, Robert McClain or Fletcher.

@DougKyedNESN Do you see the NASCAR package being a big part of this Patriots defense? Only way to give everyone enough snaps imo.

I think it should be.

The NASCAR package, for all the lay-people, is when the defensive line is entirely made up of edge rushers. The Patriots flashed this look last week against the Carolina Panthers, when Flowers and Chandler Jones lined up at defensive tackle with Sheard and Ninkovich playing outside. It resulted in a sack by Jones.

The Patriots also could throw Grissom or Easley into the mix for similar results.

The NASCAR package really only can be utilized in obvious passing situations, like third-and-long, but it could be difficult for opposing teams to stop.

It makes sense that Jones appears to have added weight over the offseason, since it looks like he could be spending a lot of time at defensive tackle while sharing the field with Sheard and Ninkovich.

@DougKyedNESN Any reason to worry the recent acquisitions could be because of injuries of current players?

I don’t believe adding Jalen Saunders and DaVaris Daniels were related to Julian Edelman or Brandon LaFell’s injuries, if that’s what you’re asking. I think they were added because the Patriots were forced to cut injured receivers Jonathan Krause and Josh Boyce this week, and they had to place Brandon Gibson and Brian Tyms on injured reserve last week.

The Patriots essentially are restocking this wide receiver corps for the final preseason game while also throwing a couple players on their rolodex for the regular season. It’s possible Saunders or Daniels makes the roster, but not entirely likely.

LaFell’s status still remains in the air, by the way. He has yet to practice, so it would be dense to assume he’s playing Week 1. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to rule out a potential Week 1 return until he’s either placed on PUP/reserve — which he wasn’t Tuesday — or declared out. It’s not a great sign that he’s not even on the field in uniform yet, however.

@DougKyedNESN mailbag question: how many times have you hit refresh today?

Between waiting for the Brady verdict and the NFL transaction wire? I probably hit “command R” 800 times Tuesday. That’s not an over-exaggeration. I’m very impatient.

@DougKyedNESN Would you consider Tarell Brown a lock to make the roster at this point?

Lock is a strong word with a Belichick-led team, but he’s extremely close to being a lock, if that helps. (It probably doesn’t. I’m the worst.)

@DougKyedNESN Does the depth at LB make you nervous?


Oh, you want more?

The Patriots signed Brandon Spikes over the offseason then never replaced him after he had an unfortunate run-in with an imaginary deer, so linebacker could be a position in which the Patriots scour the waiver wire after next week’s cuts.

Right now, Mayo, Hightower and Collins are the clear-cut starters, and Jonathan Freeny and James Morris are the top backups, though Darius Fleming has come on strong during the preseason.

Because the “base” defense is used less frequently than nickel in the NFL, it’s not that important to have three star linebackers, so the Patriots could afford one injury. Two would be tough, however.

The Patriots have the advantage of being able to use Ninkovich at linebacker, if needed. He started at strong-side linebacker in 2011, and the addition of Sheard, Flowers and Grissom means the dropoff from Ninkovich to the next defensive end wouldn’t be as steep as in recent years.

I still think they try to add another linebacker after cuts, though.

@DougKyedNESN do you like the idea of Seth Rollins defending both of his belts at the night of champions?

@DougKyedNESN Seth Rollins vs Sting… who you got?

As always, let’s end with a WWE question. Let’s field both of these at once.

First off, I love it. I enjoy watching Seth Rollins wrestle, and seeing him wrestle two matches is better than one (math). I think wrestling John Cena for the U.S. Title will allow Rollins to do more of his flippy “stuff” as he works like a face, and going up against Sting will show his more cowardly heel side.

I think Rollins prevails over Cena, but Sting beats him. My good friend — and Instagram celebrity — Zac Wolf thinks the WWE wants to give Sting the title just to say he had it at one point, but the reign won’t be long-term. A Sting win would likely mean a cash-in from Sheamus either at “Night of Champions” or on the subsequent “Raw.”

Basically, if I keep telling myself that Sheamus is going to cash in soon, I can’t be disappointed when it happens, and it doesn’t, then I’ll be elated with whatever result is thrown at me by WWE creative.

I hate Sheamus. He is the worst. I hate him more than I hated Ted Dibiase as a kid. I hate him more than I hate the Ryback-Miz-Big Show feud. I hate him more than this season of “Tough Enough.” I hate him more than the Dudley Boyz hate tables. I hate him more than The New Day loves being giffable. I hate him more than Stardust hates “Co-dy” chants. I hate him more than Luke Harper hates washing machines.

OK. You get it.

Thumbnail photo via Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports Images

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