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ESPN’s Mel Kiper said the Ravens will find no heir-apparent to Ray Lewis in this year’s draft.
But the caveat is that he already had inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower off the board.
That could very well be the case, as Hightower has moved up mock drafts after a solid showing at the combine.
But some pundits, such as Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks, still believe Hightower could be available for the Ravens at No. 29. And if he is, Baltimore may pounce on an impact linebacker.
“They’d still be delighted to find Ray Lewis’ heir-apparent in Hightower waiting for them,” Banks said in his latest mock draft.
Hightower is a linebacker who seems to fit Baltimore’s physical, smart, passionate brand of football.
He was a defensive co-captain on the national championship unit. He’s a bulky 6-foot-2, 265 pounds. He is generally regarded as a film buff and weight room junkie.
The Ravens still have Lewis leading the unit and they re-signed inside linebacker Jameel McClain, so they don’t have an immediate need for a starter.
But it’s Hightower’s versatility that could make him an immediate impact player in 2012.
Rolando McClain was the eighth-overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2010. But before the inside linebacker left Alabama for the NFL, he had a word to the wise about his successor, Hightower.
“[He’s] a freak who can play any position,” McClain said.
Four years later, Hightower’s former head coach, Nick Saban, echoed those words. While Hightower didn’t do much at his pro day, Saban took over selling his prospect to those in attendance.
“Inside linebacker, nickel backer, defensive end and odd rusher,” Saban said. “He does all those things very well, he is very smart and he has leadership qualities.”
Hightower shined as a big, run-stuffing force in the middle of Alabama’s suffocating championship defense. He’s a powerful hitter who sheds blocks well. He was also used as a pass rusher in third-down situations, making him an all-downs linebacker.
That led to 85 tackles, including 11 for loss, four sacks and one interception in Hightower’s junior year.
The versatility could be of great use in Baltimore’s linebacker unit. Hightower could potentially step into the run-stuffing outside linebacker role vacated by Jarret Johnson and add more pass rush, something General Manager Ozzie Newsome covets.
A Roll Tide alumnus, Newsome said that he saw glimpses of the Ravens’ 2000 defense when he watched Alabama’s unit this year. Ravens personnel decision-makers other than just Newsome like Hightower.
“First of all, Hightower is a great player – there is no doubt about it,” Director of Player Personnel Eric DeCosta said during the pre-draft press conference last week. “He is an explosive guy. We’ve seen him play live many times, obviously with the Alabama connections.”
But it was a difficult road to get there.
After showing tremendous promise as a freshman – and getting McClain’s blessing – Hightower shredded his knee four games into his sophomore year. He rehabilitated from surgery on his ACL, MCL and meniscus tendons.
Pundits say Hightower finally looked like his old self in 2011, and the linebacker said at the combine that he feels as fast as ever, even before he hurt the knee.
“I feel a lot more fluent as far as my movements go,” Hightower said.