As often as house fires appear on the local news, the Pittsburgh Steelers select linebackers in high rounds in the NFL Draft in April.
Jack Ham. Jack Lambert. Mike Merriweather. Levon Kirkland. Jason Gildon. Mike Vrabel. Joey Porter. Kendrell Bell. Lawrence Timmons. LaMarr Woodley. Jason Worilds. Dont'a Hightower?
Might the Alabama inside 'backer be the next in a long line of young, highly touted additions to feed what has been the lifeblood of Steelers' defenses through the decades?
Dont'a Hightower, who checked in at the NFL Scouting Combine at 6'2", 265 lbs., was the defensive co-captain of the national championship Alabama Crimson Tide defense in 2011. In 12 games at 'Mike' linebacker last season as a redshirt junior, Hightower racked up 85 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hurries, 4 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He was a consensus first-team All-American as voted by the AP, AFCA, Walter Camp, and other publications.
All told, Dont'a started 40 games in his 'Bama career, and finished with a 48-6 win-loss record. Included in that four-year tenure was a 2009 season that became a medical redshirt year four games into the campaign after Hightower took an Arkansas lineman's helmet to his left knee. The injury required major reconstructive surgery due to the injured ACL and MCL ligaments as well as cartilage tears. However, the Lewisburg, Tennessee native said at the NFL Combine that his injury rehab is long behind him.
"I feel as fast as I've ever felt, even before the knee injury," said Hightower. "I feel like I've got my speed back, and that was pretty much an open factor to my success. After the knee injury I knew what it was going to take, I knew I was going to be out for a time. After the knee incident and after the surgery I was going to work back to where I am and I definitely feel I'm just about to where I need to be."
Hightower ran well at the NFL Scouting Combine for his size, completing the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds. That was good for 10th best among the LBs who ran in Indianapolis, and at the speed mark where Hightower said he hoped he would run before the testing. However, a few scouts in Indy considered his 265-pound weight to be too heavy for most inside linebacker posts in the NFL, and Hightower agreed.
"Hopefully by Pro-Day [March 7th] I'll bump it down to 260, or 255 [lbs.]," he said. "I actually feel like I'm moving pretty good right now. As far as my 40 and my shuttle run and everything, I'm looking really good [like] back way before the knee injury. Way more fluent. I just feel like in order for me to maximize my performance in the NFL, playing inside linebacker I feel like I maybe need to drop a couple more pounds."
As for the other measurables, Dont'a displayed a 32" vertical leap, but did not participate in the bench press or the broad jump. He also per some scouts reviews did not move all that fluidly when asked to drop into coverage and display his hip turn in drills. Hightower didn't sound concerned about any questions sourrounding his pro ability, though.
"I definitely feel with my physical play that I'll be able to come in and excel as well as anybody else," he said. "I just feel like the nutrition I've gotten at API [Athletes Performance Institue] has really helped me out as far as my lean mass and my body weight so I'm definitely moving the right direction to get myself in the best performance playing ability."
One thing that isn't questioned is Dont'a Hightower's run-stopping ability from his college days, nor is his willingness to lay a bit hit on opposing ball-carriers. Hightower is a consensus elite prospect in terms of forward-moving linebackers in the 2012 Draft, and he combines that with a very high pedigree of experience as well as comfort in aligning and calling defenses.
Those traits are a big part of the job opening the Pittsburgh Steelers now have with their longtime captain James Farrior set to be released from the team at age 37. Veteran Larry Foote and 2010 5th-Round draft pick Stevenson Sylvester, along with free agent pickup Mortty Ivy, are the current rostered players that would be competing to fill Farrior's 'Buck' linebacker spot. Lawrence Timmons also could slide over from his 'Mack' inside linebacker position to become the defensive captain who wears the green-stickered helmet, although Timmons hasn't taken many repetitions there recently. Regardless of the 2012 replacement, and barring an unexpected look into the free agent market for linebackers, the Steelers certainly need to begin grooming a long-term replacement for Farrior's post.
Is Dont'a Hightower worth the 24th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft? Is he quick enough moving in space to cover the league's top backs and tight ends? Was his production on an Alabama defense (one that may feature four first-round picks and perhaps six total high-round selections) a result of Hightower's elite ability or that of the players around him? These are all questions the Steelers' brass must answer by late April. But there's no question Dont'a Hightower is on their radar, and at this point would seem to be their most likely target in the latter stages of Round 1.