Just when the Patriots defense starts to take a step forward in their play, they just took two steps backwards with the news that linebacker Dont’a Hightower will miss the rest of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Hightower is not only the leader on defense, but also the team’s top player at their weakest position which is linebacker. The team will have some decisions to make on how they go about replacing their star linebacker, whether it be through inside the organization or outside of it through a trade or signing someone off the streets.
The productivity and level of play that Hightower gives, the Patriots likely won’t be able to replace with just one player and might have to make several roster moves going forward. One move that the team is almost certain to make is removing linebacker Shea McClellin off of the injured reserve list when he is eligible to be taken off. The first game McClellin would be eligible to play in is on November 12th against the Denver Broncos following the team’s bye week. McClellin’s presence should help the Patriots linebackers in coverage against backs and tight ends, an area where the team has struggled mightily this season. Given the lack of depth at the linebacker position McClellin should be able to step in and contribute right away.
One thing that might be overlooked with the Hightower injury is his pass rushing ability and how this affects the defensive line. The Patriots really only have two true defensive ends and pass rushers in Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr., as well as Cassius Marsh who has goes into the game in certain third down situations but is primarily a special team’s player. Kyle Van Noy has the ability to rush the passer but doesn’t quite have the consistency and skill of Hightower of getting after the quarterback. The Patriots could turn to a couple of familiar faces to help in this aspect of the defense including Rob Ninkovich, who announced his retirement this summer but didn’t 100 percent rule out a possible comeback, and free agent Akeem Ayers who was a member of the Patriots 2014 Super Bowl team and is someone the team worked out at the beginning of the season. It is unknown what either guy has left in the tank and what they would be able to contribute, but their knowledge of the defense would allow them to be able to step in and contribute right away.
While its unknown what players could be on the trade block, someone who the Patriots could be interested in is also another familiar face in Jonathan Casillas. Like Ayers, Casillas was acquired by the Patriots mid-season in 2014 and was part of the Super Bowl Champion team and has familiarity with the defense. Following the 2014 Casillas signed with the New York Giants, with whom he still plays for, but with their 1-6 record they could look to trade some players and rebuild in the offseason. If available Casillas is someone I would expect the Patriots to look into before the trade deadline October 31st.