OWINGS MILLS — Dont’a Hightower bulldozed fullbacks, chased down swift running backs, bull-rushed hefty offensive tackles and led the Alabama defensive huddle with intelligence and leadership.
It’s not hard to ascertain why the punishing Crimson Tide middle linebacker is so coveted by NFL teams.
Hard-nosed, athletic and built for heavy contact at a sturdy 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, Hightower is capable of playing inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end and as a situational pass rusher in the NFL.
A two-time team captain, Hightower recorded 85 tackles, 11 for losses, four sacks and one interception last season.
He’s known for his pass-rushing skills, his ability to stonewall the running game and for his physical, nasty style of play.
“Hightower is a great player, there is no doubt about it,” Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. “He is an explosive guy. We’ve seen him play live many times, obviously with the Alabama connections. We are going to draft the best player that is available. If that’s an inside linebacker, and we think that guy can be a really good player for us, we’re going to take him.”
Should Hightower somehow get past the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24th overall pick where he could be an ideal replacement for James Farrior, the Ravens could emerge as a player for his services.
Unless the Steelers were to draft a sliding Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe to groom behind Casey Hampton, Hightower is a player they’ve specifically targeted.
To land Hightower, the Ravens would probably have to leapfrog the Steelers through a trade with the Detroit Lions at No. 23 overall. Moving up six spots from the 29th overall pick would likely cost the Ravens a third-round draft pick in addition to their current first-round selection.
The Steelers brought in Hightower for a visit and met with him at the NFL scouting combine.
The Ravens also spoke with Hightower at the combine.
Hightower grew up idolizing Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis and could initially fit in at other defensive positions, including defensive end and outside linebacker before eventually succeeding the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Lewis celebrates his 37th birthday on May 15.
“That’d be great,” Hightower said of potentially joining the Ravens. “Whoever will have me I’m looking forward to it. Guys you watched growing up and you want to be like this guy, and actually being on the field with those guys would be a dream come true.”
Among the other teams enamored with Hightower: the San Diego Chargers, Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and the New York Giants.
There’s a school of thought in NFL circles that Hightower is an ascending player who could go even earlier than anticipated.
“To be honest, the guy I’m most surprised with is Dont’a Hightower,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I think he’s a top 20 player in this draft. I know he had the knee injury, and he doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s 265 pounds, great versus the inside run. Pass rusher that can get off the edge, which was an addition to his game this past year. It’s not just something that he did that was cute to help out for Alabama this year. He’s got great hands, quick, can swim, can get off the line.
“There are times he looks more explosive than [Alabama defensive end Courtney] Upshaw coming off the edge. So I think it’s legitimately something he can do at the next level. Pittsburgh Steelers to me would be a perfect fit for him if he lasts that long.”
Hightower overcame a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during his sophomore year at Alabama.
He also tore his medial collateral ligament and meniscus.
He finished his career with 234 tackles, 21 for losses and five sacks.
He’s regarded as a good enough athlete with 4.68 speed in the 40-yard dash, a 33-inch vertical leap and a 9-9 broad jump.
Known for his dedication to film study, Hightower operated as the quarterback of the Alabama defense.
“I think that he’s really done it all here,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters at the Crimson Tide Pro Day. “He’s got a lot of diversity as a player because he’s played a lot of different positions. I think he’s going to offer the same thing at the next level: inside backer, nickel backer, defensive end, odd rusher.
“There’s not very many other things that you can do, and I think he does all those things very well. He’s very smart and has leadership qualities. I think people are starting to recognize that the more they’re around him.”