Draft board overall prospect rank: #21
Draft board overall middle linebacker rank: #2
Overall rating: 84 (Borderline 1st/2nd round prospect)
40 time: 4.62
· Excellent size 6-2 265
· Great 40 for his size (4.62)
· Impressive athleticism
· A huge thumper against the run
· A good, fundamental tackler
· Incredibly strong tackler- very tough to break
· Makes big tackles
· Impressive 2011 season (85 tackles, 11 for loss, 4 sacks, and a pick)
· Experienced in a 3-4
· Well coached
· Strong motor
· A leader on the field
· A hard worker with a great work ethic
· Takes good routes to the ball
· Sheds blocks with ease
· An excellent blitzer
· Versatile- plays end in a 4-3 on passing downs
· Pass rush ability makes up for weakness in coverage
· Impressive zone coverage ability for his size
· Not comfortable in backpedal
· Not great in space
· Not as fast as his 40 time
· Questions about where he plays in a 4-3
· An extensive injury history
· Not great in coverage one on one
· Position (middle linebackers aren’t in high demand)
NFL Comparison: Jeremiah Trotter
Hightower actually has one of the cleanest scouting reports of any prospects in this draft class. He doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses, but what weakness he does have are big ones. For one, his position is not heavy in demand. You could see this in free agency. Players like Stephen Tulloch, David Hawthorne, and Curtis Lofton all took a while to sign and signed for less than “market value,” while London Fletcher is still unsigned. This is a passing league and even some of the best middle linebackers in coverage are not going to have a huge impact on your defense, or at least that’s how it’s seen.
Hightower isn’t great in coverage, though he makes up for it by being versatile and rushing the passer. On 3rd downs, he would line up opposite Courtney Upshaw and rush the quarterback either at rush linebacker or defensive end in a 4-3 nickel package. He’s also an above average blitzer. At 6-2 265, he has the size of a defensive end at middle linebacker.
However, at the same time, there are major questions about how he fits in a 4-3 base. He’s probably not a good enough pass rusher to play 4-3 defensive end full time, not to mention that it would be a pretty major position change. He’s also a little too big and slow in space to be a 4-3 linebacker. This is the 2nd major concern I have with him.
The 3rd is his injury history. He completely wrecked his knee in 2009, tearing his ACL and MCL and meniscus. He did a great job of working back from this injury, which is yet another sign of his high character and work ethic, but that injury is still a major red flag. It is definitely worth noting that he’s a high character player on and off the field. He’s well coached and Nick Saban has nothing but good things to say about his former middle linebacker.
Aside from those 3 major concerns, he’s a very clean prospect and in the right system he could be a Pro Bowl caliber player, but it’s all about the right fit for him. He’s going to be best in a 3-4, but some 4-3 schemes would fit him well assuming he’s used in the right manner. I think he compares favorably to Jeremiah Trotter, which is high praise and shows how highly I think of him.
Trotter played most of his career in a 4-3 in Philadelphia, but rarely had to play in back pedal. He was used primarily as a run stuffer and a blitzer in the late Jim Johnson’s blitz heavy scheme. Trotter was 6-1 260 and Hightower has similar size and similar abilities. Trotter was a 4-time Pro Bowler and used correctly, Hightower can have a similar career.
All in all, I have a late first round grade on Hightower. That’s probably where he’ll go. I’ve been mocking him to Pittsburgh at 24 for months and that is a popular pick on mock drafts across the draft community. He’d be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense and fill a major need for the Steelers. If the Steelers do pass on him, I’m sure the Ravens would love adding him as a future replacement for Ray Lewis. There is also some small buzz about him going 16 to the Jets to replace Bart Scott or the Jets taking him after trading down. Seattle is another team rumored to be interested in him after a trade down.