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Potential Ravens first-round draft target: Dont'a Hightower

Each day this week leading up to Thursday’s NFL draft, we will highlight one prospect whom the Ravens could draft with the 29th overall pick. Today’s player is Alabama inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of four Crimson Tide defenders who are expected to be selected in the first round.

Background: Born and raised in Tennessee, the now-22-year-old started as a true freshman for Alabama coach Nick Saban. He blew out his knee in 2009, but returned a year later to captain a Tide defense that allowed an NCAA-best 8.8 points per game. Hightower was named a consensus All-America in 2011 and was a finalist for four major individual honors, including the Butkus Award.

Measurables: At 6-2 and 265 pounds, Hightower is on the heavy side for an inside linebacker, but he has good enough speed for his size (he ran a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine). 

Deserves praise: There are few visible flaws in Hightower's game, especially if you're looking at him for the 3-4. He is an intelligent linebacker who quickly diagnoses plays and takes good angles. He is a thumper, unloading his big frame on ballcarriers. And he can rush the passer, too, on occasion (four sacks in 2011). Plus he was a two-year captain at Alabama, which counts for something.

Needs work: When it comes to running guys down from sideline to sideline like Ray Lewis did in his prime, Hightower doesn't have the acceleration and top-end speed to do it consistently, and he may struggle if asked to cover man-to-man. But he makes up for some of that with quick decisions. Hightower also has that torn ACL on his medical chart, which isn't a red flag, but worth noting.

Fun factoid: Like many young linebackers, Hightower grew up idolizing Lewis (and Terrell Suggs, too).

Quotable: “For years Baltimore has wanted a top-shelf playmaking linebacker to be trained by Ray Lewis. Here he is,” said Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who has the Ravens trading up to pick No. 23 to select for Hightower in his final mock draft. “I see the Ravens swapping first-round spots with Detroit (who'll receive a third-rounder, too) to sneak in front of the Steelers, because Hightower is a Dick LeBeau special -- heavy and fast.”

Why he makes sense: There is a strong chance Hightower won’t be there when the Ravens pick. That’s why King believes they will have to trade up to get him. But if he makes it to pick No. 29, it would be hard for them to pass on this playmaker. He was the brains of the Alabama defense -- insert obligatory Ozzie Newsome comment here -- and his physical style is perfect for the Ravens, who will soon live life without Ray Lewis. As a bonus, Hightower has the versatility to play outside linebacker and could compete with Paul Kruger for a spot in the starting lineup right away.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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