Patriots starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower suffered a knee injury in the first half of the Arizona game. He was the only player listed as a non-participant in Pats practice Tuesday. This leaves a big question: if Hightower misses Sunday’s game against Miami, who starts in his place?
Against the Cardinals, Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny started with Hightower and Jamie Collins. However, Freeny played only 10% of the defensive snaps, whereas free agent signee Shea McCellin (formerly of the Bears) played 39% of the defensive snaps. Add to that Barkevious Mingo, the physical beast acquired from the Browns just before the season, and there is a growing list of possibilities to replace Hightower.
My best guess is that McClellin will start if Hightower can’t go. He outplayed Freeny in the preseason and was probably slotted to replace the long-time Patriots sub by October. His significantly higher number of snaps against Arizona likely indicated that replacement was coming sooner rather than later.
McClellin is a little undersized but he was good in short passing zones and he was highly competitive against outside runs in the preseason. Given his lack of size, Freeney would probably continue to start in this scenario, just to provide better support against inside runs.
From a physical standpoint, Mingo would be the best choice. However, it doesn’t appear he knows the defense well enough. He played special teams last week but he never saw the field on defense. So, his knowledge of the defensive calls and assignments obviously isn’t up to standard — not yet anyway.
Mingo’s size and quickness make him a perfect complement to Collins, with the two of them shutting down short passing zones and outside runs. If Mingo is ready to start this week, it’ll probably be him and McClellin outside, with Collins moving inside to combat the ground game. I don’t expect Mingo will know the defense well enough to start for another few weeks though.
In the medium-term (fourth or fifth game of the year), expect Mingo to start with Collins and Hightower. That LB corps would be one of the best in the NFL, with incredible athletes across the board and rising superstars in both Collins and Hightower.
That lineup would have McClellin as the first substitute and Freeny behind him. McClellin appears to be a better overall fit than Freeny, who has had years to grow into the role and hasn’t done enough to establish himself as a solid starter. However, don’t expect Freeny to be let go; he’s a valuable special teams performer, and is serviceable as a backup linebacker.
There’s an outside possibility the team will go with a 4-2-5 lineup this Sunday, adding a safety instead of a linebacker. In that scenario, safety Duron Harmon would play significant time, with safety Patrick Chung moving closer to the line in a hybrid position to replace Hightower. It’s unlikely because Miami’s passing attack doesn’t scare anyone, but it is possible.
Enjoy the game!