— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Dont'a Hightower insists he's right where he expected to be all along: A projected first-round NFL draft pick.
The former Alabama star just had to convince NFL teams that he was worth such an investment, and that he was fast enough to play middle linebacker at that level.
"I always knew I was going to be a first-round draft pick," Hightower said Friday. "That's the way I've always worked. I pride myself on going out and doing the best I can to the best of my ability. I might have started slow during the season but whenever my teammates needed me to make a play or make a call, I was always there and did my job.
"It's not about what the media thinks. It's about what the team thinks."
Teammates Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick just had to prove their first-round projections were on the money before next week's draft.
Hightower needed to change a few minds.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay called Hightower "the guy I'm most surprised with" after studying tape in the weeks leading up to the draft.
"I think he's a Top 20 player in this draft," McShay said. "I know he had the knee injury (in 2009), and he doesn't have elite speed. But he's 265 pounds, somewhere in that range, 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."
Hightower's agent, Pat Dye Jr., thinks the 6-foot-2 linebacker has improved his stock by 20-25 spots since regular season's end.
Dye said the teams that have expressed the most interest in Hightower are the Chargers (No. 18), Bears (19), Titans (20) and Steelers (24). He said several teams who pick later with needs at linebackers and are high on him include the Ravens, Patriots and Giants.
He said teams have commented on his ability to line up at end in three-man fronts, like another client, the Dallas Cowboys' Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Hightower was a finalist for four national awards last season and had career-highs in tackles (85) and sacks (four). He also was responsible for play calls and checks.
He capped the season with a sack in the BCS championship game against LSU, when coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart also gave him more freedom to get the front seven into the right formations with quick on-the-field judgments.
"(NFL officials) know coach Saban and they know coach Smart, and the fact that they gave me that much leeway in the national championship game against a big time team like that, kind of opened their eyes," Hightower said.
Hightower feels he's resolved uncertainty about whether he would be moved to defensive end because of his speed.
"All those questions are kind of in the past now about can I do it," he said. "It's more about am I going to be able to apply myself to learn a new playbook that's different from what I've known for four years.
"The defense I played in at Alabama is a lot more complex than a lot of defenses that a number of defenses in the NFL. A lot of teams have told me that."
Hightower was an almost instant starter for the Tide and a two-time team captain, but missed most of the 2009 national championship season with a knee injury. He opted not to seek another year of eligibility from the NCAA.
His Alabama coach doesn't think he had anything left to prove in college.
"I think that he's really done it all here," said Saban, a former NFL assistant and Miami Dolphins coach. "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."