Patriots Mailbag: Could Dont’a Hightower Take On Increased Pass Rush Role?

It’s understandable if the Houston Texans already are fed up with the New England Patriots. Bad news, though: That Patriots fatigue only will get worse in the next month and a half.

The Texans will have played the Patriots four times in one calendar year after their Week 3 regular season matchup on Sept. 24. The Patriots beat the Texans once in the regular season and again in the playoffs, of course, on the way to their Super Bowl LI win. Plus, the two teams just combined for two joint practices and will play Saturday night in Week 2 of the preseason.

The Patriots and Texans have played each other nine times overall, and Houston has won just once, when Tom Brady didn’t play the entire game in the final week of the 2009 season.

Let’s get into this week’s mailbag.

With Pats being relatively thin at DE, do you think the plan is more Hightower on the edge?
— @real_joshsmith

There’s enough smoke around this idea to suggest there’s fire (or Vince Wilfork is just making some tasty ribs) to the idea of Dont’a Hightower, who currently is on the physically unable to perform list, playing more on the edge.

Hightower has been the Patriots’ most consistent and productive pass rusher since joining the team in 2012, averaging pressure on over 20 percent of pass-rush snaps. He’s mostly used in a blitzing role, but he’s also found success on the edge dating back to college at Alabama. It helps that the Patriots could use David Harris, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin or Harvey Langi at inside linebacker, where Hightower is projected by many to play. The truth is, Hightower always has moved around the Patriots’ defense.

It seems like Langi has been used as a seat-filler for Hightower in practice, where he’s receiving first-team reps at — dun dun dun — the edge. It certainly would make sense to use Hightower on the edge and more as a pass rusher this season after the Patriots lost Rob Ninkovich to retirement and Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency.

Do you think Patriots push for a late camp trade to add needed depth on the defensive line?
— @AD_Helling54
It’s certainly possible the Patriots acquire another pass rusher in a trade. It actually would be odd and out of character if the Patriots don’t make at least one trade before the season begins. The Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles all look like they could have excess pass rushers.

A name I picked out randomly and for no particular reason but could make sense: the Eagles’ Alex McCalister.

@DougKyed Who’s the most likely starter at RB?
— @DwashedWADE
That’s a tough question.

I could cop out and say James White, because there’s a good chance he’ll finish the season leading his position in snaps.

But when have you ever known me to take the easy way out (other than that time I asked if I could stain my deck without cleaning it first)? I’m going to safely assume you’re talking about the early-down starting back rather than the third-down position.

I’ll still go with Mike Gillislee, but the longer he stays out with his hamstring injury, the more likely it is either Rex Burkhead or Dion Lewis takes the majority of early-season early-down reps. Gillislee is the best fit for the early-down role, but he has to get on the practice field and in a preseason game to nail down that position.

If Wise, Rivers injuries are serious enough to miss significant time, do you see a move to 3-4 base out of necessity & avail personnel?
— @Philostopher_
The Patriots don’t really play a 3-4 or a 4-3. Former Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo described it as a 5-2 last season, which is fairly accurate. They have a right defensive end whose primary job is to rush the passer, two defensive tackles, a left defensive end who’s versatile enough to drop into coverage and a linebacker standing up on the edge who can rush when the LDE drops back into coverage.

The Patriots can’t really play a 3-4 like they did in the past with Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork/Ted Washington and Richard Seymour for a number of reasons. First, teams simply pass the ball too much, and three 300-pounders can’t get after the passer well enough. Second, they don’t have a player as talented and rare as Seymour, because they don’t draft in the top 10 anymore. Seymour was big and athletic enough to play five-technique defensive end and generate consistent pressure. Malcom Brown, Alan Branch, Vincent Valentine and Lawrence Guy are better space-eaters than pass rushers, and you don’t want three of those guys on the field at the same time. Space gets eaten, but quarterbacks don’t.

Is Austin carr the next edelman,
The next sudfeld, or somewhere in between
— @Patsnews2016
There’s definitely a much better chance he’s the next Zach Sudfeld, if I’m being brutally honest and realistic.

Edelman might be described as gritty, deceptively fast, a grinder and all of the other cliches, but he’s also an elite, rare athlete. His 20-yard shuttle was in the 97th percentile, and his 3-cone drill was in the 94th percentile. Carr hasn’t shown the same type of quickness so far in camp.

The Patriots could elect to carry Carr as an extra receiver if they like him enough, but he’s definitely a better player to stash on the practice squad if they can get him to clear waivers. I understand why Patriots fans are giddy about Carr. His playing style resembles Edelman, Danny Amendola, Wes Welker, Troy Brown, etc., and he made a really great catch. But let’s wait three more games before we start comparing him to one of the greatest postseason wide receivers in NFL history.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Edelman is third in NFL history with 89 postseason receptions and 13th with 1,024 playoff receiving yards.

#maildoug Oline looks shaky to me. Any chance they trade for a tackle?
— @MrQuindazzi
I doubt it, but it certainly could happen.

The Patriots were willing to go all of last season with Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle as their offensive tackles. I believe they can get by with Solder, Cannon, either Fleming or Waddle and rookie Tony Garcia this season.

Do you think Cyrus Jones gets cut? As a Bama fan I hope he don’t, but he definitely continues to not help himself…
— @Caleb4Bama
I’m not sure if they would be willing to outright cut him. A team could be willing to trade for him, though.

I believe a change of scenery would be good for him. The Patriots are so good that the negative subset of fans has to key in and focus on something or someone. Some Patriots fans still think Devin McCourty, he of All-Pros, Pro Bowl selections and captaincies, stinks because he took a step back as a cornerback way back in 2011.

What would Jones have to do at this point to convince fans he’s a good player? A touchdown on every punt and kick return?

Let’s go rapid fire.

If Jimmy Garoppolo hits free agency after 2017, do you he’ll get a bigger contract than Brock Osweiler’s 4-year/$72M with $37M guaranteed?
— @mstanoisNFL
As crazy as it sounds, yes.

Will Summer Doug’s hair be making an appearance during the postseason?
— @PP_Rich_Hill
No, I don’t think NESN wants #VacationDoug on air. That guy’s a wildcard.

sup? #maledoug
— @June__NYC
nm, u?

#maildoug Do your incredible good looks help or hurt you as a football reporter?
— @MrQuindazzi
That’s a really great, insightful question. They probably hurt, if I’m being honest.

What restaurant would you like to see on the concourse at Gillette? (Ideally, one open on Sundays.) #MailDoug #BelichickFilA
— @TeamCrazyMatt
In-N-Out Burger, maybe?

Pretty much anywhere else, and I’d rather eat the delicious free food in the press box.

If we’re talking Patriot Place or on Route 1 North after 495, then I don’t just want a Chick-Fil-A, I actively need it.

What’s your favorite podcast you’ve ever appeared on, and why ours?
— @rslashpatriots
Probably The Bill Barnwell Show.

Oh, sorry. Did you want me to say The Official /R/Patriots Podcast?

Speaking of pods.

who wins in each of the two SummerSlam main events? #maildoug
— @JeffWIIM
Roman Reigns, with help from Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, and Nakamura.

Ha, just kidding. It will probably be Brock Lesnar and Jinder Mahal. Nothing fun ever happens in wrestling.

But seriously, Lesnar needs to lose the WWE Universal Championship. Why? Because Raw’s roster is full of wrestlers who could be Universal champ, like Braun, Dean, Finn, Reigns, Samoa Joe and Rollins, and they have a title holder who isn’t there every week And they don’t have a secondary title strong enough to carry the show — like the U.S. title could — because they choose to have Jason Jordan feud with The Miz for the Intercontinental championship.

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

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