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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Patriots Pro Bowlers, Priority Free Agent Signings, 2016 Betting Lines

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How come Don'ta Hightower has never been in the Pro Bowl? And why does Vegas have a black hole for the Patriots-Steelers game?

1. The NFL is going to have the Pro Bowl in Orlando and they are reverting back to the AFC vs NFC format in hopes that it will impact whether or not players drop out of the contest. Members of the New England Patriots often refrain from attending to reduce injury of risk- and the Patriots are generally playing the week before and are too banged up to want to play.

NFL.com named nine players primed to make their first Pro Bowl next season and Patriots LB Dont'a Hightower was on the list. My first thought was "Wait, really, Hightower's never made a Pro Bowl?" and, yes, really, Hightower has never made the Pro Bowl. The issue comes with the positional alignment.

Hightower is considered an "outside linebacker"- as is fellow LB Jamie Collins- and that really hurts his odds. He has to compete with pass rushers like Von Miller and Justin Houston and DeMarcus Ware for Pro Bowl votes, and of course he won't win. He doesn't collect sacks like those players and the sack leaders will always win out.

The NFL Pro Bowl has weird issues with positions, where Devin McCourty is considered a strong safety, and 3-4 defensive ends and 4-3 defensive ends compete for the same spot. They really need to fix positional distinctions if they want to have the best players in the game.

2. Sports Illustrated's Greg Bedard compiled a list of the Patriots free agents after this season and whether or not the player would return to the Patriots. Bedard is a former Patriots beat writer and is great with his analysis, so it's worth a look. Essentially, he thinks that the free agents on cheap deals (Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins) will receive deals that back-load big bonuses into 2017 in order to save the team's low cap space. Players on expensive deals (Dont'a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard) could sign now to open up more cap space and guarantee the players money for the start of the season.

He also notes that if the Patriots get their contracts sorted out, tight end Martellus Bennett could be a sneaky option for the franchise tag if he has a productive season.

3. I think the Patriots have a Big Four of free agents (Butler, Collins, Hightower, Sheard) and Bill Belichick would love to retain all four. I would think that Hightower gets the first deal because he has both the highest cap hit and has the least amount of acclaim. His deal is probably the easiest to decide.

While the Patriots have another season of control over Butler- he will be restricted free agent- I think they he gets a deal before the midpoint of the season. I think he's the third player of the four to get a new deal.

That leaves Collins and Sheard for the 2nd and 4th spots. I believe that both will be difficult to come to terms, but I think that one of the two will have a new deal before the start of the season. Both flash tremendous upside and would be highly sought after in free agency, and both could receive big pay checks if they bet on themselves, but I think one will agree that sticking in New England makes the most sense.

If I had to speculate, I'd say Sheard gets the deal because Belichick would likely diversify his investments after Hightower getting the first extension. Collins is a definite franchise tag option, but I think he could be one of the two highest paid linebackers in the league if he goes to market.

4. The Patriots are favored to win in 14 of their games next season. They're the underdog in the season opener against the Cardinals- which is reasonable with Tom Brady potentially suspended- and then there is no line set for the Week 7 game against the Steelers.

Why is there no line against the Steelers? It's the only game without a line determined for the 2016 season. The game takes place in Pittsburgh, but Brady will be available. The fact that every other game has a line makes me wonder the reasoning. It's not like they don't have an idea of how the teams will produce in 2016. And if they view this as a toss-up game, they could have labeled it as a "Pick 'em." Very curious.

5. The Patriots are 11-point road favorites against the 49ers, which is incredible. That means that New England would project to win by two touchdowns on a neutral field. That's a happy homecoming for Tom Brady, who has never played at San Francisco in his entire career.