It was only two years ago at this time of the year when the last University of Alabama linebacker was selected in the first round. His name was Rolando McClain, an inside linebacker that roamed the middle of Nick Saban’s pseudo 3-4 defense en route to a BCS championship. Now there’s a chance another Crimson Tide inside linebacker will go in the first round, as Dont’a Hightower is an option for several teams.
Hightower comes in a thickly built 6’2″, 265-pound package at the inside linebacker position, and he has nearly 33″ arms. He is well built in both the upper and lower body and has good strength, which makes him an asset against the run.
Stack and Shed / Run Defense
Speaking of the running game, despite the NFL being labeled a “passing league,” defenses must still be able to defend the run. If they can’t, the entire offensive playbook opens up and the defense is exposed.
Because of this, Hightower’s stock is higher than expected. His length and strong lower build to go along with his physicality enable him to be a quality run defender. He is able to stack and shed, or in other words, engage and disengage blockers, and at times overpower them.
Lateral agility is something that I view in two different ways: short area agility and greater area agility, with the latter often simply referred to as “range”. Hightower is lacking in both areas, which has led many to question his true value in the draft. His short area agility tends to show up when he’s blitzing, which I’ll expand on later, while he lacks great foot speed overall to track down ball carriers in pursuit. This has cast lingering doubt over what kind of player he’ll be in pass coverage.
First round linebackers are usually complete players that can attack downhill against the run while also being able to drop in pass coverage successfully, which can be seen when watching Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, who is the draft’s top linebacker. However, pass coverage is a significant question mark in Hightower’s game because of a few characteristics he lacks, and the scheme he played in at Alabama.
The first characteristic is his aforementioned lack of foot speed. He simply doesn’t have great speed to run with tight ends or track down ball carriers in pursuit quickly. The second questionable aspect of his game are his instincts, which he appears to lack on numerous occasions. He doesn’t make a lot of plays in coverage because of his late reactions, and he’s more of a “see him and cover him” type of linebacker.
The third and final characteristic is his change of direction ability. He is slightly stiff in the hips, and therefore lacks the fluidity to turn and run with agile tight ends like Aaron Hernandez.
Scheme is also a factor in Hightower’s evaluation because of how much work he did in zone coverage. Hightower was often a Robber defender, which is a short to intermediate zone drop in Saban’s Cover 1 Robber or “Rat” coverage concept. This was also the case with McClain when he was at Alabama, and it resulted in his coverage limitations being covered up, which may be the case with Hightower.
Ball Location and Awareness
Quickly reading the given keys and identifying the offensive play is crucial in football to be able to stay one step ahead of the offense. In Hightower’s case, he shows the ability to do this successfully, identifying the play and getting downhill.
Last but not least is the versatility Hightower brings to a defense. In Nick Saban’s scheme at Alabama he had several assignments, one of which included blitzing as well as playing defensive end and outside linebacker in pass situations.
This is a very interesting aspect of his game because it’s not normal to see an inside linebacker also serve as a pass rusher. Two players in years past who have done this are Karlos Dansby of the Miami Dolphins and Brandon Spikes of the New England Patriots. Both players either had this role in college, or adopted it in the NFL and were effective.
Hightower’s ability to get downhill is better than expected as he has a good first step and also displays quick hands. He is more of a straight-line athlete than true pass rushers because he lacks the previously mentioned lateral agility to bend the corner and dip his shoulder. However, as said, he has quick hands that have gotten him past blockers with moves such as arm-over, or as it’s often called, the “swim” technique.
Hightower’s abilities as a pass rusher and an inside linebacker leave many wondering if he has great versatility or is just a jack of all trades and a master of none. This also puts his value in question, which in turn brings up the question of whether or not he’s a first-round worthy talent.
I view him as a classic thumping, 3-4 inside linebacker who’s likely to serve as a nickel pass rusher on passing downs in the NFL. Because he’s not great at either (at the moment), his draft grade on NFL boards is likely to be anywhere from a mid-first round pick to a second rounder.