How will the David Harris signing affect Dont'a Hightower?
Nancy Lane / Boston Herald
Don't Hightower has been the captain of the Patriots defense ever since he was a first-round pick back in 2012. After inking a 4-year, $48 million extension in the offseason, his role won't be changing anytime soon. But despite that pay raise, the team still signed veteran linebacker David Harris to a two-year deal. Will Harris eat into Hightower's snaps, or will the former Jet be relegated to an auxiliary role?
Throughout their careers, the two have both played primarily at the MLB spot. Both can play all three downs (especially Hightower, who allowed the fewest yards per reception of any linebacker in the league last year). But unlike Harris, who notched one sack in 900 snaps last year, Hightower is also one of the league's most efficient pass-rushers. According to Pro Football Focus, the Alabama product had the league's second-highest pressure percentage (18.29%) among all defensive players. That's ahead of Von Miller and behind only Khalil Mack.
It may sound odd to say this about a guy who's 6'3" and 265 and typically viewed as a stout run-stuffer, but Hightower has made his fortune as a rusher. During the Patriots' playoff run, he played over 50% of his snaps on the edge, and his impact was clearly visible in games like Super Bowl LI. Yet his prowess as a on-ball LB left coach Bill Belichick with a dilemma: either keep the prototypical Mike at his prototypical position, or play to his strengths and leave the rest of the D without a leader in the middle. That's where Harris comes in.
He's 33, and he doesn't have the same coverage ability he once did, but Harris is still a solid run-stuffer and has been captaining NFL defenses for the past decade. His wealth of experience as a Mike makes him a smoother fit to free up Hightower than anybody else currently on the New England roster. Even better, he'll be a great veteran presence for youngster Elandon Roberts (the second-year linebacker tasked with filling the MLB role behind Hightower last year) and get the opportunity to compete for a title to cap off his personal legacy. Overall, it's another savvy addition for Belichick and the front office. Instead of looking for another alpha-male linebacker, the Pats found a complementary piece who can help develop the team's young talent to boot. Yes, Harris might eat into some of Hightower's snaps in the middle of the D. But overall, the former Jet will allow him to do what he does best: rush. If he can make plays off the edge like he did down the stretch last year, the Pats defense will be stronger than ever--and Harris might finally get his ring.