Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

Will the Harris signing mean more time on the edge for Hightower?

David Harris is expected to be a savvy middle linebacker who will line up his teammates when they help. He's expected to provide some level of leadership, even in his first year in New England, as an accomplished-but-hungry 33-year-old who has not yet reached a Super Bowl. 

What Harris is not expected to do is improve the Patriots pass rush. He was in on one sack in 900 snaps last season.  

But in a roundabout way he might. 

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There are dominos to fall now that Harris has been added to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. How much will Harris play, and whose playing time will he cut into? Those questions don't yet have answers, but one of the more intriguing elements of the Harris acquisition is how he will benefit Dont'a Hightower's game.

If Harris can pick up the Patriots defense quickly -- and all indications are that there should be few issues there -- he could take some of the all-important communication responsibilities off of Hightower's shoulders. 

Ever since taking the reins from Jerod Mayo as the team's signal-caller, Hightower has had to be on top of all requisite pre-snap checks and last-second alignment changes. It's a critical role, and one that Hightower performs well, but those duties place some added stress on the player wearing the green dot. Perhaps if part of that load can be heaped onto Harris' plate, that might allow Hightower to feel as though he's been freed up to focus on his individual assignments.

Harris' presence might also impact where on the field Hightower is used. Hightower may be the most versatile piece on a Patriots defense loaded with them, but with Harris in the middle, Hightower could end up playing more on the edge, where he's proven he can make a major impact (see: Super Bowl LI).

For Belichick and his staff, having the ability to use one of their best pass-rushers -- and one of the most efficient rushers league-wide, per Pro Football Focus -- on the edge more frequently has to be an enticing byproduct of the move to sign Harris. Especially since there are some question marks among the team's end-of-the-line defenders behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. 

We'll have to wait for training camp before we have an idea of how exactly Harris fits in with the Patriots defense. But the effect he'll have on his new teammates, and Hightower in particular, will be fascinating to track. 

Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

Taking a closer look at Patriots linebacker options after Harris signing

While it remains to be seen how exactly David Harris will fit into Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia's defensive scheme, he is a known commodity in terms of his instincts and football IQ. 

Will those traits be enough to earn him a key role immediately? And with whom will he be competing for time alongside Dont'a Hightower? 

Let's have a look at what the Patriots have at the linebacker spot now that Harris is in the mix.

Dont'a Hightower, 6-foot-3, 265 pounds: The signal-caller for the Patriots defense and a first-time captain last season, Hightower opted to re-sign with the team as an unrestricted free agent for a deal worth $35.5 million over four years. Hightower is an every-down player who is critical to the team's ability to stop the run. He's also improved significantly in coverage over the course of his career to the point where he's one of the best at his position at limiting yards after the catch. And when he's asked to rush the passer, he's among the game's most efficient in that regard. His strip-sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI was the turning point in New England's improbable comeback win. 

David Harris, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds: Among the former Jet's best qualities is his durability, as he has missed just one regular-season game (it came in 2016) in the last eight seasons. The 33-year-old's percentage of snaps played between 2009 and 2015 reads as follows, according to Pro Football Focus: 94.8 percent, 97.0, 93.2, 99.4, 99.8, 99.4, 92.2. Harris possesses the size the Patriots often look for in their middle linebackers, and he has experience serving as the primary communicator for a defense, which Belichick and Patricia would likely value. In 2014, Harris tied his career-high in sacks with 5.5. Per PFF he was fifth among linebackers last season in terms of yards allowed per coverage snap (0.73). 

Elandon Roberts, 6-feet, 235 pounds: Going into his second year out of the University of Houston, Roberts made eye-opening plays as a rookie in the running game, using his strength and anticipation to occasionally overpower linemen. With a full NFL offseason under his belt, Roberts would land in the category of second-year players who could make a "leap" headed into 2017. He played 35 percent of defensive snaps for the Patriots last year. 

Kyle Van Noy, 6-foot-3, 243 pounds: Van Noy's relatively unique combination of size and athleticism makes him another versatile piece for Belichick and Patricia. After arriving to the Patriots via trade mid-season last year, he was frequently used in coverage in the middle of the field and deployed as a blitzer. He had 34 tackles in 10 games with the Patriots (including playoffs) and recorded a half-sack in the Super Bowl. 

Shea McClellin, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds: After Hightower and Jamie Collins, it was Shea McClellin who played more snaps in 2016 than any other Patriots linebacker (382). A versatile option, McClellin was spotted often playing opposite Rob Ninkovich as an end-of-the-line pass-rusher during OTAs and minicamp this spring. He has experience playing off-the-line as well, but seemed to be more of a fill-in option in that role last season. 

Jonathan Freeny, 6-foot-2, 255 pounds: Freeny saw 453 defensive snaps in 2015, which was more than any other Patriots linebacker after Hightower and Collins. He spent most of 2016 on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, but returned to participate in practices this spring -- albeit while wearing a red non-contact jersey. An experienced special-teamer, Freeny could be one of the team's top linebackers in the kicking game if healthy. He signed a two-year extension with the Patriots last August. 

Harvey Langi, 6-foot-2, 252 pounds: The Patriots signed Langi to an undrafted free agent deal that reportedly guaranteed him $115,000 -- more money than any other undrafted rookie in this year's class. He played both as an edge defender and off the line at BYU and may need to prove to the team that he has value in the kicking game in order to make the roster. Fellow undrafted rookie 'backer Brooks Ellis and 2016 practice-squadder Trevor Bates seem to fall into a similar category. 

Hightower hosts women impacted by diabetes at Wonder Woman screening

Hightower hosts women impacted by diabetes at Wonder Woman screening

FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower doesn't love the spotlight. He's taken a pass on Super Bowl parades and White House visits. He's not a big pitch man or someone who will wait at his locker to see waves of reporters headed for him with microphones at the ready. 

But on Tuesday night Hightower made an exception when he hosted women whose lives have been impacted by diabetes at Showcase Cinema de Lux Patriot Place for a VIP screening of the movie Wonder Woman, which hits theaters on June 2. 

Hightower's mom, L'Tanya, was diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago and she has encouraged her son, the Patriots linebacker, to help raise awareness and funds to fight the disease. He hosts an annual fundraiser to support the American Diabetes Association and has represented the ADA on Capitol Hill. 

"My mom was definitely a big pillar, and [marketing director] Julia [Lauria] and a lot of people at SportsTrust have definitely pushed me in the right direction to step outside my comfort zone," Hightower said. "I'm not a big media public person, so I don't get to necessarily put my character and my personality out there, but I definitely don't mind, especially with a cause as good as this, to get out there and use my platform to try to promote awareness."

L'Tanya couldn't make the event -- she had some gardening back at home to attend to, Hightower said with a smile -- but he'll be back in Tennessee later this offseason to spend some time with her before the start of training camp. 

"I go back home and see my mom each and every week, my mom and my sister," Hightower said. "I try to spend as much time with family and close friends that I don't get to see throughout the season that can't come up here. Any time I'm back home, I don't do too much. I'm not a big out there person. So I'm usually at home with my family and friends."

Hightower was part of a group of Patriots who were not on the field for last week's optional OTA practice that was open to the media, but he said that he's looking forward to getting back on the field eventually. 

"When the time comes, yeah," he said, "but I'm enjoying my offseason while I can."