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Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower and CB Malcolm Butler are in entirely different contract years

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The two are approaching their contracts differently- and they should.

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler and linebacker Dont'a Hightower are both entering their final contract years with the team. That's close to the end of their comparables.

Butler has become a part of Patriots lore, rising from a tryout player to a Super Bowl hero, and is a consistent top cornerback for the team. Hightower comes from renowned pedigree at Alabama, was a first round pick, and is one of the best defenders on the roster.

Both players will likely be looking for $10 million average annual contracts, ranking just outside the top five for linebackers and top ten for cornerbacks. The franchise tag for both positions will be roughly $15 million for 2017, based upon annual increases in the salary cap. The Patriots want to get contracts done earlier, rather than later, with these players.

But the players are approaching their new contracts in different ways.

"I don’t have anything to do with [contracts]," Hightower said at practice on Thursday. "I’m just out here trying to get better with my teammates...there’s a time and place for everything. Right now, I’m just out here trying to get better."

Unlike Hightower, Butler is staying away from practice in the hopes that he forces the Patriots to give him a new contract before the start of the season.

Before people jump on Butler's decision, just note that his situation is entirely different from Hightower's. Hightower is former first round pick with over $7.72 million in career earnings and is set to more than double his career earnings with another $7.75 million this year, which ranks just outside of the top 10 stand-up linebackers.

Butler, on the other hand, has made $930,000 off his initial contract and is slated to earn $600,000 this season. He barely registers on the Top 53 contracts of most teams in the NFL. Butler is so underpaid that he has actually earned an additional $407,342 in performance-based pay adjustments from the NFL- just shy of his $420,000 rookie year earnings.

It's also important to note that Butler is severely underpaid for not just 2016, but his restricted free agent status will reduce his earnings in 2017. The first round tender for restricted free agents has increased from $3.11 million in 2014, to $3.35 million and $3.64 million over the past two years. Miguel from Pats Cap has pointed out that a first round tender would likely cost $4 million next offseason.

Why is this restricted year so important? It greatly reduces the potential earnings for team controlled contracts. Here's what I mean:

Player Dont'a Hightower Malcolm Butler
2016 $       7,751,000.00 $        600,000.00
2017 $     15,000,000.00 $    4,000,000.00
2018 $     18,000,000.00 $  16,000,000.00
Sum $     40,751,000.00 $  20,600,000.00

Looking at Hightower, the Patriots have the ability to use the franchise tag on Hightower in 2017, which would likely be valued at $15 million based on recent trends. The use of the franchise tag for a second straight season would cost the Patriots a 20% increase over 2017. So if Hightower plays out his rookie contract, and the Patriots execute their control over Hightower for the next two seasons, the linebacker would earn nearly $41 million.

This won't happen, but it's a place for negotiation for Hightower if the Patriots want to sign him to a multi-year extension. He's going to receive at least $15 million in guaranteed, which would be the 2017 franchise tag, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he eclipsed $20 million like his comparable linebackers like Bobby Wagner ($22 million) and Lavonte David ($25.5 million).

Butler, on the other hand, is set to earn half of what Hightower will receive if the Patriots execute their team rights over his contract. If Butler finishes up his rookie deal and gets hit with the first round tender as a restricted free agent, and then receives the franchise tag, he will be under team control through the 2018 season. Pats Cap has a good contract idea for Butler here.

This means that Butler's negotiating leverage is far less than that of Hightower, and his contract extension will be further reduced. It would be possible for Hightower to see $24 million in guaranteed money (100% of 2017 franchise tag amount and 50% of 2018 franchise tag), while Butler could earn just $12 million guaranteed (100% of 2017 first round tender and 50% of 2018 franchise tag).

So when Butler holds out and Hightower attends practice, just note that the two are coming from extremely different places and that a camp injury to Butler would have a far more damaging impact on his career earnings and livelihood.