When the trade of Chandler Jones went down last March, the move seemed to be the signal of New England’s decision to ensure they would be able to lock up Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins for the foreseeable future and maybe even extend Malcolm Butler and possibly a couple of other players.
Nearly a year later, none of that happened.
Hightower is coming off of a solid season, which included a key play in Super Bowl LI that allowed New England to get back in the game and ultimately pull off a historic comeback to win their fifth title. As for Collins, he was shipped to Cleveland midseason, rumored to be because of problems stemming from not sticking to the team’s defensive scheme and potentially becoming an issue in the locker room.
Meanwhile, Butler had another great year and is closing in on being a restricted free agent, having played for right around $600k for 2016, far below his market value. New England is in the driver’s seat with Butler, but the fact he hasn’t yet been locked up for the long-term is still an interesting situation. It’s possible the Patriots may have wanted to be sure his terrific showing in 2015 wasn’t an anomaly and if that’s the case, he’s cernatainly shown that he should be part of the team’s nucleus moving forward and is worthy of a pay increase.
But the fact that no extensions came about is interesting given the fact that things had seemed like they were shaping up to go that route. The Patriots had made their moves, all that was seemingly left to do was to work out the numbers.
Yet nothing was ever worked out with any of those players, but it’s not like they didn’t try. According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, before this season, the team offered Hightower a deal worth more than $10-million per season and he reportedly turned it down. The team could use the franchise tag (worth around $14 million), which the team has done in the past with another key player on defense in Vince Wilfork (2010) before eventually reaching to an extension.
Whatever they come up with will have to be competitive as he seems focused on making sure he’s paid appropriately after making two game-saving plays (his stop against Marshawn Lynch two years ago set up Butler’s game-winning interception) in two Super Bowl victories.
“Absolutely. I’ve spent five years here. I’m eager to see how that’ll turn out,” Hightower told the Providence Journal of free agency. “I’m looking forward to it. … I love New England. I love the fans. They can keep their cold weather, but it’s been a great five years and I’ve loved every second of it.”
Behind Hightower is defensive back Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, who have each been solid in their roles on the defense. As a cornerback, Ryan will likely garner interest in the open market and may enter a price tag that could just become too high for the Patriots, especially given how much they’ll eventually need to pay Butler. The same could be said for Harmon, who has played his way into earning a big raise and he’ll likely get it from a team looking for such a talented player to add to their secondary.
Branch joins Hightower among defensive free agents this offseason.
There’s also Alan Branch, who the Patriots caught a major break with after the veteran won his appeal to avoid a late season suspension that could have jeopardized their solid finish and cost them their top seed. His value up front can’t be understated, and he’s proven he’s a key part of their defense.
Then there’s Jabaal Sheard, who had a rough year but came on strong down the stretch, and he’s another player who New England will likely try and keep. The same goes for Chris Long, who took a while to really get comfortable in this defense but got stronger as the year went on and proved to be a smart pick-up before the season.
The fact there are so many players will be a challenge, and oddly enough, It seems like it’s the first time that whatever plan the front office seemingly had to be proactive didn’t seem to work out. It’s almost to the point where it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a collective effort out in the world of player agents to finally try and stop this juggernaut from underpaying guys in what they feel is too low below market value. Given similar situations in the past, the fact nothing got done between last March and September is a bit of a red flag, and a curious situation to say the least.
Either way, this team faces some difficult challenges on the defensive side of the football this offseason as they try and keep their nucleus intact. Success tends to result in big paydays since other teams want a taste of what each of these players just accomplished, and it will likely make things interesting in the coming months. But with a higher cap number and over $60-million in cap room, the Patriots certainly have the space to get it done.
Now it’s just a matter of making the numbers work. Hopefully, unlike last year, they’ll have a little more success this time around.