Just when it appeared the New England defense was trending towards normalcy, a massive blow has been dealt to the unit.
Per Ian Rappaport of the NFL Network, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
But ESPN's Adam Schefter said the Patriots still don't know if Hightower is done for the year. He said the linebacker is set to visit Dr. James Andrews on Thursday.
Hightower appears to have suffered the injury in the third quarter of Sunday night’s 23-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons when he lunged towards running back Devonta Freeman for an attempted tackle.
Hightower stayed on the field for one more play before leaving the game for good. He was missing from practice Wednesday for New England, the first ominous sign. Hightower had already missed two games this season, in Weeks 2 and 3 against the New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans.
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Hightower, 27, re-signed with the Patriots this offseason on a four-year, $35.5 million contract with $19 million guaranteed.
His absence creates a massive void in the middle of the defense for the Patriots, a unit which has been showing great improvement over the last three games. After giving up 32 points per game in a 2-2 start, New England has given up 12.6 points per game on its current three-game winning streak.
Internal options to take Hightower’s place aren’t nearly as appealing as the 25th overall pick from the 2012 draft, but they do exist.
David Harris, 33, has played sparingly thus far in his first season in Foxboro. But after spending 10 years as the nerve center of some very good defenses for the New York Jets, he has, if nothing else, the know-how to man the middle. Harris played a season-high 19 snaps against the Falcons on Sunday night; perhaps the lack of wear and tear he’s suffered this season could keep him fresh for the final nine games of the regular season. While he’s been inactive for several games, there’s a reason he hasn’t been cut.
Shea McClellin has not played yet this season, but returned to practice last week and is eligible to return from injured reserve after the bye week against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 12. McClellin played in 14 games for the Patriots last season, starting four in his first season with the team. He’s more of an outside linebacker than someone who plays in the middle, although Hightower himself had moved to the edge out of necessity for New England at times this season.
Second-year linebacker Elandon Roberts did not play vs. the Falcons on Sunday but returned to practice on Wednesday, albeit as a limited participant. Roberts has particularly struggled in coverage this season for the Patriots.
Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers and the newly-promoted Trevor Reilly round out New England’s depth chart at linebacker. Van Noy has been nothing short of excellent for the Patriots this season but shifting him to the middle would create a weakness elsewhere.
A clamor amongst fans for Rob Ninkovich to end his retirement would certainly help New England’s pass rush, but do little to alleviate the loss of Hightower in the middle of the defense. No injury this side of Tom Brady is insurmountable for the Patriots to overcome, but Hightower just might be as close as it gets.
The NFL trade deadline is on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Bill Belichick has made blockbuster moves on or around the deadline before — whether that’s bringing in Aqib Talib or exiling Jamie Collins — but with the Hightower news coming so close to the date, the degree of difficulty will be that much tougher to pull off a move to improve the roster.