The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2017 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. While the team has the third most salary cap room in the NFL this season, they have a slew of free agents including several who are either starters or important role players. We’ll be doing profiles on each of the free agents in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the starters and in our opinion, the most imperative to re-sign is linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The Patriots unquestioned best linebacker and arguably their most indispensable player on the front seven is Hightower. He makes the calls for the defense, is a Pro Bowl and 2nd team All-Pro for the first time this season and is a big, physical, down-hill style player who produces when the chips are on the line.
Flashback to Super Bowl XLIX, right after the crazy catch by Jermaine Kearse down the right sideline, giving the Seahawks the ball on the Patriots five-yard line. Hightower stops Marshawn Lynch at the one setting up Malcolm Butler’s game saving interception.
Eight days ago, in Super Bowl LI, the Patriots have kicked a field goal to cut Atlanta’s lead to 28-12 late in the fourth quarter. They need two scores and a pair of two-point conversions to tie the game. But first, they must stop the Falcons with a three and out and get the ball back. Hightower blitzes off the edge on 3rd down and a short two. Devonta Freeman misses his block and Hightower strip sacks Matt Ryan.
Tom Brady and the offense quickly capitalize on the great field position and the Patriots stage the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history by scoring 31 unanswered points to win in overtime. With Hightower’s strip sack, it probably doesn’t happen.
Why Hightower Will Return: Hightower is big, 6’3, 265-pounds and is versatile, something Bill Belichick loves in his players. He’s a downhill, run-stuffing sledgehammer in the running game. But he’s very effective at blitzing when his number is called and can either come off the edge or up one of the A-gaps. And for a man of his size, he’s good in coverage.
He calls the defenses and was named a team captain by his peers. His respect in the locker room is evident and he was given the all-important locker of former great Willie McGinest. That’s in the spot where he can keep an eye on things and players as they come and go during the day. That location is no small matter to the Patriots players and coaches.
The sure tackling Hightower has no peer in the Patriots linebacking corps. His size and speed are a unique part of the makeup of the team. He can cover well for a man of his size and the Patriots really have no one that could replace him on the roster. He’s the glue that holds the defense together and sets the tone for the others to follow.
Why Hightower Won’t Return: Money would be the sticking point. Reportedly the Patriots offered him in the neighborhood of $10 million during the season and he turned it down. His former teammate, Jamie Collins just signed a four-year $50-million-dollar deal with Cleveland that may be a bit rich for the Patriots to take on.
Another reason that the Patriots may balk is injuries. Because of his style of play, he’s been pretty nicked up. Hightower missed three games this season and hasn’t played a full season since the 2013 season.
He seems intent on testing the market and seeing what his worth is. He plays in both the middle but is particularly effective as the SAM.
Bottom Line: The Patriots know the value of having Hightower in the lineup. His contributions were greatly responsible for the last two Super Bowl wins. He gets the respect on the defense that players like Willie McGinest and Vince Wilfork used to get.
Something to consider, although he’s been dinged up and missed some games in the past three seasons, he’s never missed a playoff game and has been at his best when the games went into crunch time.
Another option in the Patriots favor is that, if they can’t work on a deal right away with Hightower, they can use the Franchise tag on him and keep him for at least another season. That would be costly (around $15 million), but at least they’d keep him around for the 2017 season and allow the two sides to come to a long-term deal.
For that reason, I think the chances are better than 70 percent that Hightower returns for at least next season. It would be a best-case scenario, however, to see the two sides hammer out a deal for a player that the Patriots absolutely must re-sign this spring.
Look for Hightower to be back in Foxboro when training camp hits this July.