One of the league's most active linebackers from the nation's top defense makes our countdown today:
No. 9: Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama, Jr.
Preseason ranking: No. 5 in the 2011 preseason rankings.
2011 summary: He led Alabama and ranked 13th in the SEC with a career-high 85 tackles last season. He was second on the team with 11 tackles for loss and was third with four sacks. He also defended four passes, recorded an interception, forced a fumble, had eight quarterback hurries and blocked a kick. He was a finalist for four national defensive player awards and was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and a first-team All-SEC member by the league's coaches.
Why he's here: Hightower really embraced the role as being a true captain for his team last season. He was responsible for basically running Alabama's No. 1 defense on the field by delivering the play calls and the checks throughout the entire season. Hightower showed tremendous instincts and versatility with the Crimson Tide. He mostly lined up in the middle for Alabama, but could move outside on passing downs, where he became one of the league's best pass-rushers. He could also drop back into coverage, where he showed pretty solid awareness. He registered five or more tackles in 11 of his 13 games last season, including getting a career-high 11 against Mississippi State. He also recorded a career-best 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks against the Bulldogs. On the season, Hightower recorded 8.5 of his 11 tackles for loss in conference games and averaged seven tackles in league games. Hightower was able to move all around Alabama's defense to make plays in 2011. The knee injury that cut his 2009 season short and nagged him at times in 2010 was a thing of the pass, as he didn't seem to have a problem chasing down opposing offensive players at all. He was also very quick with his decision-making and reactions on the field and never strayed from the defensive scheme. Hightower played with great determination and showed an impressive work ethic last season. It also didn't hurt that since he was a little big for his position, he delivered quite the punch to offensive players.