The Chicago Bears are perilously thin at linebacker. The group includes two potential Hall of Famers in Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, but both are on the wrong side of the 30. At some point in the relatively near future, their production will decline.
The strong-side starter, Nick Roach, is a decent player but he's far from a game changer. Beyond the starters, there's nothing but scraps. The organization needs to start thinking long-term at the position, starting with this year's draft.
The team has pressing needs along the offensive line, at defensive end, wide receiver and cornerback, yet one linebacker is intriguing enough for the team to forego those positions of need, as early as the second round.
LB Dont'a Hightower
Marvin Gentry/US Presswire
Former Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (6-2, 265) is an impressive specimen. He didn't stand out at the NFL Scouting Combine this past weekend, yet the tape shows a player that will be ready to play at the next level from Day 1.
-Hits like a Mack truck. Arguably the hardest hitter amongst all incoming linebackers.
-Plays with a fluid, effortless style.
-Can play stand up on the inside or outside, as well as from a two-point stance in the defensive end spot.
-Smart player that does well diagnosing plays. Great read-and-react time. Doesn't over-commit on play fakes.
-Times his blitzes well and stays skinny coming through the line.
-In zone coverage, reads the quarterback's eyes and reacts quickly to passes thrown in front of him.
-Downhill player who is a beast in the box.
-Can struggle disengaging. Takes on lead block with power but often loses sight of ball carrier.
-His downhill style limits his change-of-direction ability. Overruns too many plays.
-While decent in zone coverage, he's a liability in man-to-man sets. Won't be able to keep up with tight ends or running backs at the next level.
-Relentless rushing from a two-point stance but relies almost entirely on bull rush.
-Lacks ideal straight-line speed.
-Isn't overly athletic.
On film, Hightower is very reminiscent of Lance Briggs: a downhill, hard hitter whose intelligence makes up for any perceived lack of athleticism. Many analysts feel he's best suited as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 but he could also thrive on the outside in a 4-3. His diagnostic skills, combined with his powerful style, would help him excel on either side in a 4-3.
He isn't as tall, fast or athletic as Urlacher but he has the smarts to take over the MIKE position down the line. He even went so far as to dine with Urlacher shortly before the combine.
"The transition from student athlete to professional," Hightower said of what he and Urlacher discussed. "To play alongside of those guys, get a lot of experience from those guys, that'd help me out a lot."
Did Urlacher sell him on the big city of Chicago?
"He wasn't trying to sell me as much. We talked. We rapped a little bit about football and the NFL."
Seeking out the All Pro linebacker shows Hightower's level of commitment. Scouts believe he's a Top 50 pick. Some mock drafts have him going in the first round but his average showing at the combine will likely drop him into the second round.
Yet he's still a high-quality player that looks like he'll be a long-term starter at the professional level. Hightower looks like a can't-miss prospect that could play any of the three linebacker positions. If he falls to Chicago in the second round, the team will have to think long and hard before passing on him.
If he builds on his All-American collegiate career, he could become the next in a long list of outstanding Bears linebackers.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.