-- With the news that New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower will potentially miss the remainder of the 2017 season due to a torn pectoral muscle, we empaneled a roundtable of our NFL Insiders to discuss the fallout for one of the league's top Super Bowl contenders.
Does this injury make you shift your Super Bowl chances for this team?
Dan Graziano, NFL writer: Sure, it has to. Attrition via injury is such a huge part of any NFL season, and the healthier teams tend to be the ones standing at the end. If this were one stand-alone injury, the Patriots likely could weather it. But set in the larger context of the defensive attrition they've already endured, it makes you wonder how much more they can take. Buffalo and Miami both are mounting challenges in the AFC East, and Pittsburgh looks like it could cruise to a No. 1 seed. This has to affect the way you view New England's chances, even if they're still your favorite.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer:?No. Hightower's versatility and leadership skills will be missed initially for a defense that has struggled to play consistently this season. And that should be expected. But it's also another opportunity for the Patriots to thrive in an adverse situation. Bill Belichick and his staff will massage the scheme to hide the weaknesses of Kyle Van Noy, David Harris and others that step into this role.
Domonique Foxworth, senior writer at The Undefeated: Yes. Before Hightower's injury, the defense was this team's weakest link. But there was some hope that they could be good enough. Now most of that hope is gone. Given the current state of their defense, finding ways to compensate for losing their most versatile defender will be a nearly impossible. But then again, so was coming back from being down 28-3 against the Falcons.
Could you see them trying to swing a trade?
Dan Graziano, NFL writer: Absolutely. This is a team that dealt Chandler Jones in-season two years ago, Jamie Collins last year and made multiple trades this offseason. Bill Belichick is keenly aware of who's available and what the prices are. I'd be kind of surprised to not see the Patriots make a trade at this point. Malcolm Butler is a potential trade chip they can offer a cornerback-needy team if that's what it takes.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: I don't think they have it make a move.?Lean on the depth chart here and their ability to develop personnel. Plus they have a culture that is already ingrained in New England. This is about adapting the game plan to fit the current players on the roster.
Domonique Foxworth, senior writer at The Undefeated: Major NFL trades are so uncommon. I would be shocked if the Patriots were able to coordinate an impactful trade at this point in the season, unless they were willing to part with backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which they are not.
I wouldn't be surprised if ____ happens (good or bad):
Dan Graziano, NFL writer:?... they still win the Super Bowl. There's nobody better than Belichick at diagnosing in-season problems and finding ways around them. They're not going to get anyone to replace what Hightower is in their defense, so the answer is probably going to be some kind of alteration in the way they play defense. This is a coaching staff that's not afraid to tear up the plan mid-season and work for a better one.
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: ...?Van Noy becomes a high-impact player in the Patriots' scheme. Look for Belichick and his staff to put him in situations that maximize his ability.
Domonique Foxworth, senior writer at The Undefeated: I wouldn't be surprised if Belichick happens. If Bill and his coaching staff, through schematic innovation, manage to turn a clear deficiency into an advantage. I don't know how they would do it. But, my guess is that they would use more safeties in place of linebackers, and overload blitz more often.