3 Potential Free-Agent Replacements for Dont'a Hightower
It was a little bit of a tough day for New England Patriots fans on Tuesday, after several pieces of the roster elected to opt-out of the 2020 season. These players all opting-out due to COVID-19 and the threat it has on overall health and wellness in NFL locker rooms. Six players opted out, many citing either pre-existing health complications or family as reasons to sit out and focus on their health. Among those six was Dont'a Hightower, Patriots' star linebacker, citing family reasons for sitting out this season.
Hightower is potentially the team's biggest loss among the pile of turnover New England has had this offseason. Hightower, a Pro Bowler just last season, does not just hold an important role in the Patriots' defense, he helps hold the glue together. As the primary playcaller on the defensive side of the ball, his importance to that unit is insurmountable.
Many fans may be questioning how in the world Hightower is a bigger loss than even Tom Brady this offseason. The sheer fact that New England has lost both Hightower and three other linebackers this offseason (ie. Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts) makes this loss sting the most. As now, the Patriots will be operating without their star, Pro Bowl playcaller and also lost three veterans capable of taking his place or capable of wearing the green dot for Hightower.
While it all seems like bad news right now, the bright side is that Ja'Whaun Bentley still remains with the team and has worn the green dot before. Bentley appears to be the main candidate to take over Hightower's spot at middle linebacker. However, even with two new, young, exciting pass-rushers like Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, those three likely cannot compensate for Hightower's production alone, let alone replace the trio of Collins, Van Noy, and Hightower all together. It seems almost destined that the New England linebacker core takes a step back this season, which will cause the defense as a whole to step back as well.
So while Bentley can fill a role, and Uche and Jennings can likely provide some positive nuggets this season, what the team really needs is a veteran off-the-ball linebacker, brought in to move around in different formations and put pressure on the quarterback. Without a veteran who can do so, a scheme change may ensue with the Patriots to fit the ability of Bentley and their rookies Uche and Jennings better.
Therefore, the best thing New England can do at this point in the offseason is target a free agent to do the trick. With added cap space from all the opt-outs, pretty much any free agent is within the Patriots' budget now. While many free agents remain unsigned at this point for good reason, some players among the group of unsigned players are high quality and can have an impact. Let's figure out who those players are.
Darron Lee would be an interesting addition to the squad in New England. While he is probably not the best fit in a 3-4 scheme, Lee is a quick, athletic, inside linebacker, who could be successful in the Patriots' system with designed, delayed blitzes.
His snap count would likely be lower as his run defense is not fantastic and he is a liability in coverage, however, Lee could easily be subbed in for certain situations and make a positive difference.
Lee would likely be rather one-dimensional in New England, which would stager his playing time. However, his impact as a blitzer could help make up for some of the quarterback pressures being lost this offseason. Both Lee and Bentley could see snaps together at inside linebacker and a creative mind like Bill Belichick could find ways to use the pair effectively.
Alec Ogletree and Lee in many ways have a lot of similarities. The one thing that Ogletree could hold above Lee in some ways is his instincts and football IQ.
What Ogletree can really bring for New England is a leadership presence (he was a former captain) with experience calling plays. So while Ogletree could be a liability at times in pass coverage or some of the run game as well, Ogletree can bring sideline-to-sideline speed, along with play-calling experience to help avoid chaos and confusion on the field.
Neither Ogletree or Lee are overly exciting players. Both have been kind of kicked to the curb by fans of their former squads. However, both Ogletree and Lee would be cheap options that if used right could be another solid reclamation project for Belichick.
Recently, before the Hightower news, I published a piece talking about Clowney and how he could fit in with the Patriots. Now, after the Hightower loss, the signing makes more sense than ever. Clowney is the only player available who could even come close to replacing the pressure Hightower put on quarterbacks last season.
Clowney, if brought in, would be brought in with the sole purpose of moving around in different formations and putting pressure on the quarterback. In that sense, he is the perfect fit to replace Hightower. While he would not likely line up at middle linebacker (there are better spots for Clowney), he would be performing a lot of the same functions from different spots.
With a healthy Clowney playing Hightower's role in a sense, it would not be unrealistic to see Clowney make the Pro Bowl in Hightower's place. Getting a Pro Bowler this late in the offseason to replace a hole created by the opt-out of a Pro Bowl talent makes a lot of sense.