The most impressive part of the Patriots’ two-decade stretch of dominance has been their ability to shed popular and productive players each season and still maintain a high level of performance.
In 2017, though, the league’s No. 32-ranked defense (426.7 yards per game surrendered) has already struggled mightily to replace both the talent level and chemistry of Bill Belichick’s previous defenses.
What will they do now that Dont’a Hightower, one of the best linebackers of the Belichick era, is set to miss the season with a torn pectoral muscle?
The MMQB’s Albert Breer reported the injury Thursday morning along with the following information, which basically showed that New England, along with the rest of the NFL world, was not totally taken by surprise:
• Teams interested in signing Hightower discovered a partially torn pectoral muscle back in March.
• The New York Jets failed Hightower on his physical amid their free agency courtship of the 27-year-old linebacker, and pulled their initial offer to him.
New England signed Hightower to a four-year, $35 million deal on March 15, though his lower 2017 base salary ($1,250,000) and higher per-game earnings reflected the team’s concern. Hightower has made it through 16 games in a season just once with the Patriots (2013), and he was on New England’s Active/PUP list for nearly all of training camp this season.
A position switch to more of the Rob Ninkovich-style edge linebacker spot also increased the difficulty level for Hightower to emerge from 2017 fully healthy. According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower played 237 total snaps as an edge defender this season, about the same amount as Cassius Marsh and Deatrich Wise. Trey Flowers (435 snaps) has been New England’s most consistent edge presence this season.
Belichick has always been able to flummox opposing teams with the ability to shift defensive fronts on a whim. Part of that success was thanks in part to versatile, cerebral players like Hightower who could handle a vastly different workload from week to week. Belichick signed the largely stashed longtime Jets linebacker David Harris (26 total snaps in 2017) for that same reason.
Will he be able to get creative enough to fix the Patriots’ defensive issues without his most dependable defensive player?