Hightower's value to the Patriots was proven during his time on and off the field last season. In the 12 games he started and finished, New England was 10–2. In the other six, it was 3–3. That discrepancy was particularly evident in the Pats' Week 12 loss to the Broncos. Before Hightower sprained his left knee late in the first half, Denver rushed for just 43 yards and no scores, but after he exited, it ran for 136 yards and three TDs. Overall, opponents gained .85 more yards on each carry when he was not on the field. Pro Football Focus ranked Hightower seventh among all linebackers and had him as their top pass-rusher at the position by the end of the regular season as he mastered the A-gap pressure to the tune of four sacks, two hits and 18 hurries on just 116 rushes. The 26-year-old is not your standard middle linebacker (as evidenced by the fact he also made our OLB list), but he's shown the smarts and aggressiveness necessary to excel inside as well as out.

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