During the three seasons in which Bill Belichick won his Super Bowl rings as the New England Patriots head coach, he relied on a strong defense to carry his team. That defense's success was predicated on the play of very athletic, but also very intelligent, linebackers.
This year, the team's defensive strength appears to be at the linebacker position once again.
It should have come as no surprise that the Patriots drafted Donta Hightower in the most recent NFL draft. Hightower is the exact type of linebacker that Belichick desires for his ideal defense. He is overwhelmingly athletic, incredibly versatile and more intelligent than most players of the same age.
The Patriots entered this off-season understanding that they needed to improve the personnel on their defense by not just adding talent, but talent that fit the desired identity of the unit as a whole. While Chandler Jones, the team's first draft pick, fit an obvious need without Andre Carter or Mark Anderson on the roster, most people expected the Patriots to add to the secondary with their second selection opposed to a linebacker.
Because Rob Ninkovich, Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo were some of the team's better performers last season, the Patriots would have felt comfortable moving forward with the group while upgrading around them.
Instead, Bill Belichick brought in Donta Hightower to give the Patriots' three very talented linebackers who fit with the team's identity.
Regardless of how the front fixes itself moving forward, whether it be a 3-4 or 4-3 formation, the trio of linebackers should be productive. With Mayo and Hightower having the ability to move outside in a 3-4, the Patriots have scheme flexibility with a very young core.
That bodes very well not only for this coming season, but for the future.
Hightower is only 22 years of age, but it would not come as a surprise if his transition to the professional level was seamless. At Alabama, a professional style of defense, he was used in multiple ways and had more responsibilities with play-calling than any other player on the field. His high football IQ will allow him to fore-go some of the adjustments that most rookies must endure.
Because Brandon Spikes is only 24 and Mayo only 26, the Patriots could conceivably have set in stone their linebackers for the next decade or so. That is presuming the two "veterans" keep their consistency and Hightower pans out.
Regardless of whether Hightower becomes a star or not, adding a linebacker was a very intelligent move by the Patriots' personnel decision-makers. When you have one significant hole in your defense, having an overwhelmingly strong section can aid your attempts to fill that hole. A great secondary can help a poor pass rush, while a great pass rush can help a leaky secondary.
With the type of players the Patriots have at linebacker, they should significantly help the team in both the passing and rushing defense while improving the overall discipline of the defense. Bill Belichick prioritizes players who will sustain his scheme integrity. Hightower, Spikes and Mayo are those types of players.
Unlike a Brandon Meriweather, who was very talented but released for roaming too often, the Patriots now have three excellent talents at linebacker who can excel within the boundaries of their scheme.Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral and FFBLife. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf