Patriots must get creative to replace irreplaceable Dont'a Hightower


At the moment, Dont'a Hightower is the biggest name in the NFL to opt out of the 2020 season.

The two-time Pro Bowler doesn't have eye-popping numbers comparable to other star front-seven defenders across the league, but his impact goes far beyond the 71 tackles and 5.5 sacks he posted in 2019.

Hightower and his fiancée welcomed their first child on July 16 and ESPN was the first to report that Hightower would take the voluntary opt-out provided players in the CBA, which was revised due to COVID-19. 

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Without him, the Patriots will move forward with one of their longest-tenured defensive starters and its voice in the middle of the defense. Hightower has for years served as the on-the-field defensive play-caller and de facto traffic cop who can align everyone from the defensive linemen, fellow linebackers and defensive backs creeping forward right up until the moment the ball is snapped. 

Hightower also has the individual versatility to be a queen-on-the-chess-board type for Bill Belichick.

While he's been used most often as an off-the-ball linebacker in recent years, he has the ability to play off the edge — where he made the strip sack that turned the tide in New England's Super Bowl 51 comeback against the Falcons — and he's been one of the league's most productive blitzers as the Patriots have schemed up their pass-rush with a bevy of twists and stunts that take advantage of Hightower's power pressing the line of scrimmage. 

How does he get replaced? He doesn't. His experience level, instincts and physical skill set make him unique to Belichick's defense. But in his absence, they'll have the ability to fill in with a variety of athletes.

Ja'Whaun Bentley is the most logical off-the-ball linebacker replacement for Hightower as the top option at that spot. It'll be a massive leap in terms of responsibilities for Bentley, who found himself buried on a depth chart that featured Hightower and Jamie Collins at the top last year. Bentley, though, may have already seen an uptick in playing time even before Hightower's opt-out since the Patriots lost Collins to Detroit in free agency. 

Bentley was a classic Patriots pick in the fifth round in 2018 as a linebacker who was listed at Purdue at 260 pounds. That's the kind of old-school size the Patriots still appreciate even when the rest of the league seems to be attracted to smaller, quicker 'backers to cover backs in the passing game.

Bentley proved so effective as a rookie — both against the run and the pass — that he earned time as a starter in Year 1 before landing on injured reserve early that season. Collins' return in 2019 pushed Bentley to more of a reserve linebacker role. 

The Patriots lost off-the-ball linebacker Elandon Roberts and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy to free agency as well so the entirety of the linebacker unit — a unit that is critical to the Patriots scheme in bothering opposing quarterbacks — will have a very different look.

Another off-the-ball option who could see a major jump in responsibilities this coming season would be second-round rookie Josh Uche.

Coming out of Michigan — where defensive coordinator Don Brown favored a scheme similar to Belichick's — Uche already has some familiarity with what the Patriots do at the second level. And for a team that loves to use blitzing linebackers from the middle of the field, the Patriots got one of the best available in that role in this year's class in Uche. 

The Patriots also drafted Cassh Maluia out of Wyoming in the sixth round as an inside linebacker under inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.

Patriots outside 'backers — coached this year by Steve Belichick — fit into the equation as well with Hightower out because Hightower may have found himself on the edge quite a bit — particularly in the wake of Van Noy's departure. Veteran John Simon appears to have the inside track on a starting role after playing opposite Van Noy in 2019. Chase Winovich looks poised to play more after taking on a sub-rusher role as a rookie last season. Rookie third-round pick Anfernee Jennings — out of Hightower's alma mater Alabama — could also take on a versatile role as a bigger body with some off-the-ball versatility.

There is no one-for-one replacement for Hightower. However the Patriots decide to push forward without him, they'll have to be creative. 

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