By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Dont’a Hightower would have been a great fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. But according to at least one beat writer from Pittsburgh, the linebacker wasn’t worth it – and really isn’t that great anyway.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette wrote a column on Wednesday, called “By going back to New England, Hightower does Steelers a favor.” He appears to have reacted in a similarly irrational way that many fans would when a free agent or former player spurns their team. It happens here in New England sometimes, and any fanbase can be guilty of such behavior. But Bouchette takes his anti-Hightower rhetoric to bizarre levels of salt in Wednesday’s column.
“Hightower is overrated and overhyped, partly because he made two key plays to help the Patriots win two Super Bowls, partly because he was a first-round draft pick and partly, well, because he played in New England,” Bouchette’s article reads. “But if he was so valuable to the Patriots, why didn’t they sign him to an extension last year, and why did they let him test free agency?”
Never mind how silly Ed sounds with the first comment … you mean he only made a measly two Super Bowl-saving plays? What a hack! But the answer to those last two questions is fairly simple. The Patriots did not see a need to overpay for a big early extension for Hightower because they didn’t foresee a big market for the linebacker as an unrestricted free agent … and they were 100 percent right.
Oh, and another thing that Bouchette fails to mention … the Patriots offered Hightower nearly the same deal that he signed on Wednesday, but the linebacker turned it down before the season.
Here’s where Bouchette wanders dangerously toward “honk” territory … he claims that Hightower wouldn’t be more than a marginal upgrade over 2013 sixth-round pick Vince Williams.
“Would Hightower been (sic) an improvement over Williams? Maybe, but maybe not much,” Bouchette wrote. “Certainly, it would have been a luxury you’d think a team like the Steelers couldn’t afford.”
Bouchette makes at least one salient point … Hightower may have been more of a luxury than the answer to a pressing need for the Steelers. Ryan Shazier is a good linebacker who may be able to assume the role of Lawrence Timmons, who signed with the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers have needs for pass rushers and secondary help more than they need a player like Hightower.
But to suggest that Hightower wouldn’t nonetheless be a significant addition and markedly improve their defense just sounds like a case of sour grapes, rather than an informed, impartial analysis of the player. Bouchette further indicates that he only did cursory research on Hightower when he penned the column.
“Hightower as playmaker? Please,” wrote Bouchette. “He had a career-high six sacks in 2014 and just six combined the past two regular seasons. That is 1.5 fewer than [James] Harrison, at 38, had in 2016 — 7.5, including 2.5 in the playoffs.”
Look, I enjoy looking up stats on ProFootballReference.com as much as anyone. But I never played a down of organized football in my life and I still know that pressuring the quarterback doesn’t just boil down to sack totals – especially for inside guys like Hightower and
According to Pro Football Focus, Hightower played 171 snaps as a pass rusher in 2016, compared to 303 snaps as a run defender and 390 in coverage. He produced a 76.4 pass rush grade, second-highest among all linebackers behind only the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner. His 85.7 overall grade ranked him 12th in the league. But sure, he’s not a playmaker.
If Bouchette set off honk-o-meters with his previous remarks about Hightower, he made them explode with this one:
“The Steelers would have been better off signing Timmons to the deal Miami gave him instead of throwing money at Hightower, who at 27 may have his best years behind him.”
When age 27 is often considered the peak of a player’s prime years as an athlete, it’s simply asinine to suggest that any 27-year-old would already be past his prime – even for an oft-injured inside linebacker who takes a beating every season. To be fair, Bouchette may have been confusing Hightower with the 30-year-old Timmons, who earned a 48.4 grade from PFF last season.
Bouchette said in a March 14 column that he would consider Hightower an “asset” to the Steelers defense if they added him, so it’s not like he thinks Hightower straight-up stinks. He also said on Twitter after Hightower’s return to the Patriots was announced that he would have “written it was a mistake” if the Steelers were the ones who signed him, so he’s not necessarily changing his take on the player as a reaction to the news.
But anyone who’s actually used their eyes and brains to evaluate Hightower, and not just looked at numbers on a sheet, knows that Hightower would be a great addition to any defense. Bouchette has covered the Steelers since 1985 and I’ve learned a lot about the team from reading his columns in the past; he’s certainly more respected and seasoned than someone whom might be dismissed as a “fanboy blogger.” But based on his column on Wednesday, it’s unclear how much he has actually watched Hightower play outside of Patriots-Steelers games.
Hightower will never put up big-time stats because of how much he moves around the defense, and also because that’s just not how the Patriots defense operates. Hightower was more important to the Patriots than other teams because of his role in the defense, his knowledge of the system, and the team’s lack of talent behind him at linebacker – but that doesn’t mean the Patriots grossly overpaid him at four years and $43.5 million, or that the Steelers couldn’t use a player like him.
It would have been strong-to-quite-strong if the Steelers made a move as bold as prying Hightower away from the Patriots. Bouchette thinks they’re just fine with Vince Williams. He’d just better hope that Vince Williams outplays Hightower next time the Steelers face the Patriots, because then he would really have some spinning to do.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.