Patriots fans knew pretty quickly that the team had struck gold with their two first-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft. Chandler Jones (21st) and Dont’a Hightower (25th) looked like instant stars. Each one started in 13 games during their rookie seasons in New England and became the face of the New Age Patriots defense.
The problem? Rookie contracts for NFL players. First round draft picks are locked in on four-year deals with a fifth-year team option. This meant that after their fifth year, the Patriots were going to have to pay Jones and Hightower at the same time if they wanted to keep their young stars. This became even more complicated when the Patriots drafted Jamie Collins the following year. New England’s three-headed monster looked like a blessing and a curse.
Fast forward a few years: Collins is a decent piece in a rebuilding Browns team, Hightower looks like little more than a shell of himself at times, and Jones is lighting the league on fire as one of the most dominant defensive ends in football. One of the most critical aspects to the Patriots two decades of unparalleled success has been shrewd personnel moves. This is one situation where it looks like Bill Belichick got it wrong.
Patriots fans may want to argue. “We’ve won a Super Bowl with Hightower, and been to a second one. Jones’ Cardinals have been terrible, so clearly we didn’t need him.” However, it isn’t incorrect to say that, had everything else transpired the same, the Patriots would’ve won not one, but two Super Bowls with Jones.
None of this is to suggest that Hightower is a bad player. He has been a key piece to the Patriots defense as a versatile player with a knack for tackling. He also had one of the most important plays of Super Bowl 51 when he strip-sacked Matt Ryan to set up a Patriots touchdown. However, Hightower’s play has declined significantly since his outstanding 2014 performance where he recorded two passes defended, a forced fumble, six sacks, and 105 total tackles.
Since 2014, Hightower has only played in 39 of 58 possible regular season games. He has been plagued with injuries, including a torn labrum and chronic knee issues. He has only managed eight sacks since 2014, and his highest total tackles in a season has been 65.
Hightower’s lack of production can’t be directly attached to his lack of playing time. In his brilliant 2014 campaign, he only played in 12 regular season games. The linebacker has simply regressed from what seems to be a mixture of age and injury history.
Jones, on the other hand, has been one of the best defensive players in the NFL in his two and a half seasons in Arizona. He has played in every single game for the Cardinals over the previous two and a half seasons. He tallied 11 sacks in 2016 and a ridiculous 17 sacks in 2017. He’s currently on pace for over 16 sacks again this year. Jones’ production does not stop there. He has also had 10 passes defended and nine forced fumbles over the last three seasons. Jones has made nearly 150 tackles during his time in Arizona as well.
It’s abundantly clear that the Patriots could have used a player of Jones’ caliber over the previous three seasons. One of the Patriots biggest issues in Super Bowl 51 was a lack of pass rush. Yes, they did get some key sacks down the stretch; Hightower strip sacked Matt Ryan, and Trey Flowers sacked the Falcons QB to push them out of field goal range. However, the team had next to no pressure in the first half.
The 2017 Patriots defense was notable for its utter lack of a consistent pass rush from its defensive ends. Flowers and Deatrich Wise each ended up with at least six sacks, but those aren’t exactly elite numbers. This flaw became ridiculously clear in Super Bowl 52 when the Patriots couldn’t get even remotely close to Nick Foles, which allowed the Eagles quarterback to torch the Patriots defense. It’s fair to say that if New England had Jones for Super Bowl 52, that game would have turned out very differently.
The Patriots success this millennium has been based on making the right personnel moves that may not make sense to the casual observer at the time. However, no team is perfect, even one managed by Bill Belichick. Two and a half years out from the Jones trade, it’s not hard to see that the Patriots may have made the wrong decision.