With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, winner of this year's Most Likely to Give Autocorrect Fits Award. (The over-under on live draft blogs that refer to him as Don't a Hightower on April 26 is 354). If you believe the blogosphere, Hightower is signed, sealed, and delivered as the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 24th overall pick. Steelers fans and media love big, productive linebackers, and they have had their eye on Hightower since he won a starting job for the Crimson Tide as a true freshman. Indeed, Hightower fits the mold of the classic Steelers inside linebacker: He looks a lot like a bigger version of the young James Farrior, so much so it is easy to pencil him in as an heir apparent.
The problem, of course, is that Hightower must make it through 21 selections for the Steelers to nab him, and there are plenty of linebacker-hungry teams waiting in that line.
Pros: Hightower is big and powerfully built at 265 pounds. He uses his size well when plugging interior gaps, and he will rip away from blockers to make a tackle. Hightower is one of the most fundamentally sound tacklers in the draft class, and he delivers some pop.
Hightower is a multi-dimensional pass rusher who recorded four sacks in 2011. He lacks pure quickness as an edge rusher, but he times his interior blitz well and can use a "rip" move to disengage from a blocker. He hustles in pursuit when the quarterback flees the pocket.
In pass coverage, Hightower is smooth, disciplined and decisive. He reacts quickly to players entering his zone and knows when to get deep to take away passing lanes. Like most Nick Saban linebackers, Hightower has been well-coached in the fundamentals and has mastered a very complex defense. He knows his role and is able to call signals and make adjustments to the defense before the snap.
Hightower was a four-year starter (except for a 2009 knee injury) and gets high marks for character.
Cons: Hightower lacks top-end speed and acceleration. Faster running backs and tight ends can run away from him in coverage. He will not win many first-step battles as a pass rusher.
Hightower was slow to recover from the 2009 knee injury, and there is talk in draft circles that he favored the injury too long and did not play aggressively. Tape from the second half of the 2011 season, however, shows him playing at full throttle.
Conclusion: Hightower is "high-floor" player. With his size, athleticism, and Saban training, he is all but guaranteed to be a productive starter who can contribute right away.
Sometimes, high-floor players are perceived as "low ceiling" players with limited upside, but that is not a fair assessment of Hightower. It's better to think of him as a "low glory" player: He will play glamour-less positions like inside linebacker in a 3-4 or the strong side in a 4-3, recording 100 tackles and a handful of sacks while teammates make the highlight reels.
Hightower's draft stock is diminished by the low priority many teams give his type of player. Defenders 90 percent as good as Hightower will still be on the board on the third day of the draft, but the fact remains that Hightower is the best, and most NFL ready, big inside linebacker in the draft. Some team is going to be very pleased when he falls to them. Possibly even the Steelers.
NFL Comparison: James Farrior, Pittsburgh Steelers
More Shutdown 50:
#36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse | #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers | #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State | #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU| #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy