It’s time to acknowledge Dont’a Hightower for what he is and for the New England Patriots to treat him as such.
The middle linebacker, through just five NFL seasons, is one of the Patriots’ all-time greats, and the organization would be foolish to let him walk in free agency this offseason.
The Patriots very well could have two less Lombardi Trophies without Hightower’s services. He made the stuff on first-and-goal with a minute left in Super Bowl XLIX that (foolishly) influenced the Seattle Seahawks to throw on second-and-1 at the Patriots’ 1-yard line, leading to Malcolm Butler’s game-sealing interception.
Hightower also made the strip-sack that set the wheels in motion for the Patriots to mount a historic comeback over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The play was rightly featured on NBCSN’s “Turning Point” because it, more than any other play, turned the momentum of the game (if such things exist) in the Patriots’ favor.
Hightower remains unsigned, as he’s scheduled to hit free agency on March 9 at 4 p.m. ET, and it would be a shame to see a player as unselfish, versatile, talented and now iconic as him move on to another team before his prime has past him. He deserves mention with the Tedy Bruschis, Mike Vrabels, Willie McGinests, Ty Laws, Vince Wilforks and Richard Seymours of Patriots history. And to gain that kind of notoriety, Hightower will need to stick around for more than just five years. (Perhaps all Patriots fans could learn to say his name correctly if he sticks around longer too. It’s pronounced like Dante, not like Don-tuh.)
The best move the Patriots could make would be locking up Hightower in a long-term deal. They have the salary cap space after trading Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, and of those three players, Hightower clearly is the best fit for the Patriots’ defense. If the Patriots can’t sign Hightower to a long-term deal, then franchise-tagging him to make another run in 2017 is worthwhile.
Hightower, at 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, is as stout as they come as a run defender at middle linebacker. He also might be the NFL’s most effective pass-rushing linebacker on a per-snap basis. Despite his size, he’s adept in pass coverage because of his sure-tackling.
On top of his on-field skills, Hightower is one of the most respected players in the Patriots’ locker room. He was voted a defensive captain for the first time in 2016, and he helped weather the storm as Collins was traded and players such as Jabaal Sheard and Malcom Brown were benched. The Patriots’ defense played its best football in the second half of the season.
It’s worth acknowledging that Hightower borders on being injury prone. He has missed 13 regular-season games in five seasons and has played a full 16-game season only once, in 2013. But it’s also worth mentioning Hightower has never missed a playoff game. He suffers his nicks and bruises, but it’s never enough to place him on injured reserve or keep him out of the most important games of the season. In fact, Hightower made both of his iconic Super Bowl plays while wearing a holster on his shoulder.
Hightower came to the Patriots with high expectations as the 25th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and he’s more than lived up to them. Now it’s time to reward him and keep the heart of New England’s defense intact.
Thumbnail photo via John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports Images