It’s once again time to reevaluate the upside of the 2017 New England Patriots.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower reportedly is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, drastically decreasing the upside of the Patriots’ defense, which already looked atrocious for the first four weeks of the season. The Patriots’ defense still could continue to pull it together this year, but it will be done knowing they could have been even better if Hightower never went down.
Hightower’s injury, in that way, is similar to the season-ender suffered by Julian Edelman in the preseason. The Patriots’ offense has been great this season … but they could have been better.
We tackled who could replace Hightower in the short term earlier Thursday morning. Many of those same names, like linebackers Elandon Roberts, David Harris and Marquis Flowers, safety Jordan Richards, and pass rushers Cassius Marsh and Adam Butler, will be counted on heavily in the long term, too. Kyle Van Noy will continue to be an every-down defender.
Another player who will be important, upon becoming eligible to return from injured reserve after Week 8, is linebacker Shea McClellin. McClellin’s skill set best matches up with Hightower in his ability to play inside linebacker, cover, defend the run and rush the passer either as a blitzer or edge defender.
But McClellin is not Hightower, nor is Roberts, Harris, Flowers, Richards, Marsh or Butler.
Hightower is the Patriots’ best linebacker and most productive pass rusher. The Patriots are averaging an entire fewer yard allowed per pass when Hightower is on the field and .33 fewer yards allowed per carry.
As their roster currently is constructed, the Patriots will mix and match pieces to replace him, and none will be nearly as talented. The Patriots have the depth to physically take on Hightower’s role, but whether they have the talent actually to replace him remains to be seen.
If they don’t believe they have that talented depth, then the Patriots will swing a trade by the Halloween deadline next Tuesday. Players like Hightower are hard to find, but the Patriots can at least look for either inside linebacker or edge defender help.
Looking at the Patriots’ roster, their biggest need is on the edge. The Patriots’ pass rush already hasn’t been as productive as necessary on third down, and that’s been with Hightower. They’re down to Marsh, Butler, Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Geneo Grissom as pass rushers.
The first call worth making would be to Rob Ninkovich, who retired in August. He’s expressed a willingness to return, and now might be the perfect time. Like Hightower, Ninkovich could contribute as a run defender and pass rusher. He has the versatility to play linebacker or pass rusher. The New Orleans Saints’ Hau’oli Kikaha is another player worth keeping in mind. He’s reportedly been shopped this season and could help fill Hightower’s third-down pass rushing role.
It could be harder to find a middle linebacker who could learn the defense and perform better than Roberts, Harris or McClellin.
All of this is not to say the Patriots’ chances of competing for another Super Bowl championship this season are null and void. The Patriots are 10-3 without Hightower in the past four seasons. For as important a piece he is to the Patriots’ defense, they proved in the past they can win during the regular season without him.
The playoffs, where Hightower tends to make his greatest impact, could be a different story. The Patriots have never had to enter the postseason without Hightower, for all of his injury woes. This would be a first for the Patriots.
Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images