By Jeremy Hritz
More and more mock drafts are beginning to emerge as we get closer to Thursday, April 26th, and over and over, the most popular name to be called by the Steelers at number 24 is Alabama inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Conventional wisdom asserts that the Steelers will draft either an offensive lineman or Hightower with the first pick, yet the depth at the offensive line position in the draft makes it likely that the Steelers will select Hightower. Since the possibility is strong that the Steelers will take Hightower, it is worth the effort to take some time to get to know what he is all about.
Hightower, a native Tennessean who was named the state’s Most Valuable Defensive Player as a high school senior, measures in at 6’2 ¼ and 265 pounds, and he posted a 4.64 forty yard dash at his pro day on March 7th at Alabama. At 22 years old, Hightower can help upgrade the middle linebacker position for the Steelers, which has struggled over the past two years as James Farrior’s once abilities began to diminish.
Hightower was an essential component of the Crimson Tide from the outset, starting at inside linebacker as a true freshmen. During his freshmen year, he recorded 64 tackles, and finished fourth on the team in tackles. Unfortunately, after four games in his sophomore year, Hightower tore his ACL. This injury has raised some questions about Hightower’s durability, yet he returned the following year and accumulated 69 tackles. This past year in 2011 for the Tide, Hightower was the primary signal caller on defense and was responsible for ensuring that the rest of the defense knew their responsibilities. And the 2011 Tide defense wasn’t just any defense, it was ranked number one in the NCAA and pitched a shutout in the National Championship Game, 21-0 against LSU. In that game, Hightower recorded four tackles and one sack. Without question, Hightower is battle-tested from playing against top-tier talent in the SEC and is familiar with playing in big games, experiences that could predict a somewhat smooth transition to the NFL.
Most importantly about Hightower is that he is a high character guy with leadership capabilities that he exercised at Alabama in his captain role. If drafted by the Steelers, over time he could develop into the leader of the defense, a role that has been vacated by the departure of Farrior. Hightower is also an explosive player that is physical and fits the traditional prototype of a Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker. His penchant for annihilating running backs would make him an immediate fan favorite. While he has been questioned about his coverage abilities, Coach Dick LeBeau would find a way to ensure that he is not a liability in pass coverage.
While the majority of mock drafts have Hightower going to the Steelers, he is a player that recently has been gathering some momentum, and it is a possibility that his stock could continue to climb out of the range of the number 24 pick. Hopefully, the teams picking ahead of the Steelers have plans that don’t include Hightower because he is a player that could be a rock in the middle for many years.