Why The Oakland Raiders Should Sign Dont’a Hightower

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) reacts after a tackle in the third quarter during Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower (54) reacts after a tackle in the third quarter during Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dan Powers-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders are in need of major help at inside linebacker, and Dont’a Hightower is the answer.

Eight Minutes and thirty eight seconds remain in Super Bowl LI. Some of the last remnants of smoke from Lady Gaga’s halftime show still emanate beneath the roof of Reliant Stadium in Houston. The Atlanta Falcons have dominated the contest to this point, and with New England showing the first sputtering signs of life to scrape back to 28-14, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan breaks the huddle.

Ryan analyzes the scene in front of him from the shotgun. Taking the snap, he takes a quick drop back and eyes his target for what would be a crucial third down conversion.

Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, a silver and blue streak comes crashing towards him, knocking the ball loose from his grasp and handing New England possession at the Atlanta 25-yard line. That streak is Dont’a Hightower — and for the first time since the start of the second quarter, the game feels like a legitimate contest.

At 26 years old, Don’t Hightower is set to hit the free agent market after New England made it clear they won’t use the franchise tag on the linebacker. Why then, should Oakland make a concerted effort to snap him up?

First and foremost, Hightower is one of the premier free agents on the market this year at any position. My colleague Nick Hjeltness just wrote an excellent piece on dream and realistic signings for the Raiders. it’s no surprise that he lists Hightower as his dream signing at linebacker. Additionally, Hightower is listed at No.4 amongst the top 101 free agents this offseason by NFL.com.

Apart from his quality in comparison to the overall free agent class, Hightower would immediately upgrade a position of dire need for the Raiders. The position was a revolving door for a defense that could stand to be improved as a whole. Ben Heeney was initially named the starter for Week 1, but consistently dismal performances saw rookie Cory James from Colorado State step in before the Raiders eventually picked up free agent Perry Riley Jr.

Whilst Riley performed adequately, he’s hardly the long term answer for the franchise at middle linebacker. The Raiders need to improve the inside linebacker spot is further emphasized by the intrinsic value of the position to provide cohesion and leadership to a defense that underperformed last season. Not to mention, left many amongst the fan base calling for coordinator Ken Norton Jr’s head.

So, what specifically does Hightower provide? The first and most notable upside is his age. At only 26, Hightower could realistically be signed to a decent multi-year deal that could lock up the position for the next five years. For comparison, Hightower is almost exactly one year older than Derek Carr.

That said, Hightower’s age is by no means an indicator of a lack of experience. He has already racked up 5 years in the league, spearheading a sophisticated and respectable New England defense that was sneakily one of the league’s best this past season. The Patriots defense finished 8th overall, 1st in defensive scoring and third against the run. Not to mention, last season Hightower was named to his first Pro Bowl and was named second team All-Pro.

Statistically speaking, Hightower racked up respectable numbers this past season despite missing two games due to injury. During the regular season the backer finished with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, a safety and two passes defensed. Admittedly, one of the knocks on Hightower has been his durability, having missed 11 games over the past three seasons.

However, there is one crucial element to Hightower’s game that makes him a free agent priority for the Raiders. Hightower is at his best in the big moments. Sean Wagner-McGough wrote a compelling article after the Super Bowl proclaiming Hightower as the unsung hero of the Patriots last two Super Bowls, and I must say I agree.

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Super Bowl 49 will forever be remembered for what I myself called at the time “A play that will in infamy.” Malcolm Butler’s goal line pick of Russell Wilson to win the game is forever cemented as one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. However, if it wasn’t for Hightower, the game might never have come down to that moment.

On the previous play, Wilson handed the ball off to the barnstorming Marshawn Lynch, the latter cutting through the trenches, lowering his head and steaming towards the goal line. In a moment of pure determination, Hightower dived at Lynch’s legs, bringing the juggernaut down just one yard short. A juggernaut Cris Collinsworth himself said during the broadcast had been “borderline unstoppable in this part of the field.” So crucial was Hightower’s stop, the Patriots coaching staff credit him as much as Butler from preventing a Seahawks victory as seen in the NFL Films documentary “Do Your Job” of two years ago.

Appropriately, this article now comes full circle to Hightower’s strip sack of Ryan in Super Bowl LI. Not only did Hightower blow by Devonta Freeman on the outside, he had the intelligence not to just hit Ryan and try bring him down, but get his hands on the quarterback’s throwing arm, knocking the ball free for a crucial turnover. Like hist stop of Lynch two years prior, Hightower’s play was a potent combination of intelligence and determination in the heat of the moment.

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For a Raiders franchise that should realistically be aiming for a conference berth this coming season, Dont’a Hightower could well make the crucial difference between adding silverware to the Raiders cupboard or going back to the drawing board for 2018.