Let me start by saying I think Dont’a Hightower, ILB for the Patriots, is as tough as they come. When I write about injuries it is often difficult to be cold and factual – these are real people, grinding very hard, trying to make a living. I’m always pulling for them to defy odds and norms for return to play. That being said, football is a business and players are rewarded and traded based on their value. Injury history and physical availability are a big part of the discussion. As Hightower nears unrestricted free-agency and is looking for a big-time pay increase, the question arises – is he worth it?
Hightower has chronic knee and shoulder injuries. In 2009, while at Alabama, Hightower suffered what we call the “unhappy triad” of his left knee – ACL, MCL, and meniscus tear. He had reconstructive surgery and was away from the game for over a year. A knee injury like his commonly leads to chronic knee issues down the road. In 2015, Hightower had another significant injury, this time to his right shoulder. He required off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum. The labrum is a rim of cartilage around the socket of the shoulder joint that provides stability by making the shallow socket of the ball and socket joint deeper.
In the past 3 years, Hightower has missed 3-4 games/season for knee and shoulder issues. It became apparent late this season that Hightower’s snaps were being limited, most likely to keep the green dot-wearing LB as healthy as possible for the final game. In the Super Bowl, Hightower had one of the most impactful plays of the game – a 4th quarter strip sack that completely changed the momentum of the game. It was notable that he was wearing a shoulder harness to protect his left shoulder from extreme overhead movements when he made that play.
I was curious how Hightower’s game availability compared to similar-quality linebackers in the league. Sports Illustrated ranked the top 8 inside linebackers in the 2016 season. Hightower was #8 on the list. I looked back at all of the top 8 inside linebacker’s injury history over the past 3 years and this is what I found:
Luke Keuchly (25) – 3 games missed (concussions)
Bobby Wagner (26) – 6 games missed (mostly toe, single season)
Danny Travathan (26) – IR 2014, 2016 (knee), 1 (concussion)
Derrick Johnson (34) – 2014 tore left Achilles, 2016 tore right Achilles
NaVorro Bowman (28) – 2016 IR Achilles, 2014 PUP knee (ACL, MCL, PCL, meniscus)
Jerrell Freeman (30) – 7 (groin, hammy)
Deon Bucannon (24) – 3 (ankle)
Dont’a Hightower (26) – 11 (knee, shoulder, 1 ribs)
NaVorro Bowman had an Achilles rupture and surgery this year. This comes after a horrendous injury to his knee in the 2014 post-season. He was told that he would never play football again after that injury but he perservered. At last update, Bowman was able to run in a pool but his status for next season remains unclear. Derrick Johnson has had 2 Achilles injuries in 3 years and has missed the better part of 2 seasons because of it. At 34, a ripe old age for a linebacker, will he consider retirement? Danny Travathan has a history of patellar (knee cap) instability and had multiple surgeries to correct this. He has been on and off IR in both Denver and Chicago, ending this season on IR for repeat knee issues. Wagner, Freeman, and Bucannon have not missed significant time for chronic injuries.
So, how does this make you feel about Dont’a Hightower missing 3-4 games per season with chronic shoulder (labrum) and knee (possibly degenerative meniscus) injuries? Hightower, Bowman, Johnson, and Travathan all have significant chronic injuries, so one place to start is to look at the contracts of those other ILB’s. Hightower’s injuries are most likely not going to get better. If anything, they could worsen. He has proven that he can play through the injuries, for now, but the Patriots did treat his playing time differently toward the end of the season this season than in years past. Does that signal worsening symptoms, the Patriots’ recent improvements in the realm of injury prevention/management, or a blossoming leadership role for the 26 yo ILB and increased attention to his health?
There is obviously a lot more to the story than just the injury and availability piece. I think it comes down to this – are the Patriots willing to overpay Hightower (i.e. more than Jamie Collins) as a leader in a position that is currently a weakness for the team or will his availability and chronic knee and shoulder issues and the Patriots’ record of miserly spending send him to the open market? Bobby Wagner, a LB with no significant chronic injury issues has the following deal: 4 years, $43 million, just under $22 million guaranteed at signing. Jamie Collins‘ deal is 4 years, $50 million, $26 million guaranteed at signing. Will the Patriots pay that or more for Hightower, a player with chronic knee and shoulder injuries who also happens to fulfill a major need for the team? It will certainly be interesting to see how this unfolds over the next few months.
If you want to read more about Hightower, for the performance piece I would yield to experts like Mike Giardi and Tom E. Curran for their football analytical skills. For the financial part I would direct you to Miguel on Twitter @PatsCap – the man is brilliant and philanthropic (make sure you donate to his chosen charity!).
Happy postseason! Continue to follow me on Twitter @jessdeede for all post-season injury updates.