Pass rushing linebacker; edge rush or interior blitzer
Athletic for his size
Produces good down-and-distance situations
Advanced technique in taking on blocks
Already recovered from one serious knee injury
Doesn't cover a big amount of ground
Not a fit for many 4-3 defenses
Can't be a deep drop linebacker in pass defense
Summary: Hightower is one of the freak athletes in terms of size and speed in the 2012 NFL Draft. The massive linebacker is a rare specimen who has the quickness and agility to be able to play in space. Most players who are Hightower's size are forced to move to defensive end and don't have the athleticism to play linebacker. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Hightower showed how unique he is with a 40-yard dash time at 4.62 seconds.
Throughout his career at Alabama, Hightower was a tough, in-the-box defender. He provided some splash plays while also serving as a core player against the run. Unlike many linebackers, Hightower has the strength and bulk to shed blocks. As a junior in 2011, Hightower had 85 tackles with 11 tackles for a loss, four sacks, one interception and three passes batted away this season. He had a dominant game against Tennessee and played well versus LSU. Hightower blocked a field goal against Georgia Southern, and it looked like he was spiking a volleyball.
A season-ending knee injury cost Hightower the majority of the 2009 campaign. He came back in 2010 but was clearly not over the injury, as he was much faster in 2011. He showed his versatility by rushing the passer from the edge on some passing downs. He is a tough blizer who should contribute as a pass rusher.
There have been some questions if Hightower is a three-down player in the pass-driven NFL. He doesn't have the sideline-to-sideline speed to cover the field and get deep in zone drops, thus he shouldn't be used in that manner. Hightower would be better utilized rushing the passer on third down rather than dropping back in coverage. There is little doubt that he should be a real force against the run in the NFL. He is a powerful player who will be a tough defender in the tackle box.
Hightower would be best in a 3-4 defense. He does not fit many 4-3 defenses because of his pass coverage. Hightower looks like a late-first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: Levon Kirkland. Hightower's game is reminiscent of Kirkland's. Both are massive linebackers who have surprising athleticism for their size. Kirkland had a very good NFL career, including nine years with Pittsburgh, followed by one year each with the Seahawks and Eagles. Kirkland (6-1, 275) was a Pro Bowl linebacker who was a big, physical in the box presence. Hightower may not turn out to be as effective in pass coverage as Kirkland was, but he should bring a lot of the same style of play to his NFL team.
NFL Matches: Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Baltimore, Indianapolis
There are a few 3-4 defenses that could have interest in Hightower. The Steelers are a natural fit and could select Hightower with the 24th-overall pick. Pittsburgh would find its long-term replacement for James Farrior in Hightower. Green Bay doesn't have a big need at inside linebacker, but it could consider Hightower if he is the best player available. Hightower could replace A.J. Hawk in the middle of the Packer defense, and improve the edge rush as an outside linebacker on passing downs.
The Ravens could use some help at linebacker. Ray Lewis isn't getting any younger and they lost Jarret Johnson in free agency. Hightower would be a good scheme fit in Baltimore. The Colts have more pressing needs than linebacker, but in switching to the 3-4 defense, they might grab Hightower to be a building block for their stop unit. Indianapolis probably won't get a shot at Hightower on the second day of the 2012 NFL Draft.