The New England Patriots have a long list of free agents, but two of the top players don’t seem open to the idea of returning on a below-market contract. LB Dont’a Hightower and TE Martellus Bennett have expressed a willingness to play under the franchise tag, but both have taken to Twitter to laugh at Patriots fans that expect them to play for less money in New England.
And stop @'ing me about taking less money. You take less money and your job? All of you take a pay cut hahaha.— Martellus Bennett (@MartysaurusRex) February 22, 2017
I knew it'd be only a matter of time https://t.co/QbjmxkGKyW— Dont'a Hightower (@zeus30hightower) February 22, 2017
It’s a fair response. Players value facets of a team differently- winning, location, teammates, money- and each player is unique. Just because QB Tom Brady plays on a cheaper contract doesn’t mean that every other player will sign a below-value deal in New England.
Some players, like veteran EDGE Chris Long, will sign a cheap deal because he wants to win. Others, like RB LeGarrette Blount, will sign a cheap deal because he knows that the Patriots will maximize his abilities. It would appear that WR Danny Amendola will take a hometown discount because he’s made Rhode Island his, well, home.
Hightower and Bennett have experienced winning and have skill sets that will thrive in almost any locale; perhaps they don’t view New England as their home. So why settle for less than the best contract offer?
I still think that the Patriots will allow both Hightower and Bennett to test the market to see their value before presenting a more final offer. The franchise tag for both players exceeds what either player would receive on an annual basis for an extension, so the Patriots would rather reach a long term deal.
Both players are the top options in free agency at their respective positions and will be paid as such. The difference comes in how both players are perceived by the Patriots.
Hightower is more like FS Devin McCourty in the sense that he’s both the top free agent and one of the top players at his position. The Patriots gave McCourty an NFL-record amount of guaranteed money in his contract for a safety in order to retain his services, but only after McCourty shopped around and received monster offers from the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I love what I have in New England," Hightower said on ESPN. "I don't have too much drawn up. I just want to be respected and loved."
“In a perfect world, yes, you would love to be back in New England and if it works out, that would be great,” Hightower added. “But it is your duty and obligation to go out there, explore the market, see what's out there, and if some team shows you much more love, respect and appreciation than New England does, as disappointing as it would be, then it would be time to move on.”
Hightower will shop around, likely receive a Jamie Collins- or Luke Kuechly-type offer from a bottom-feeding team at roughly $12.5 million per season, while the Patriots will likely counter with $12.0 million per season, but more guaranteed money than the other teams. The difference in annual money could be perceived as a hometown discount, but the guaranteed money is what actually matters in these contracts due to extensions with a year or two on the deal.
Bennett represents a different conundrum. He’s not the best tight end in the NFL; he wouldn’t even be the best tight end on the Patriots (hello, TE Rob Gronkowski). Bennett turned down an extension valued at $7 million per year before the season, which would have made him the 13th highest paid tight end in the league.
When you look at tight end receiving production over the past two seasons, Bennett certainly falls in that 10th-15th ranked tight end range, but his added blocking ability and the fact that he’s younger than five of the higher-ranked tight ends (Panthers TE Greg Olsen, Titans TE Delanie Walker, Browns TE Gary Barnidge, Cowboys TE Jason Witten, and, maybe surprisingly, Seahawks TE Jimmy Graham) pushes him up the list. Bennett could reasonably expect a contract in the $8.0 per season million range.
Will the Patriots be interested in matching that offer? Time will tell. Perhaps Bennett will receive the LeGarrette Blount treatment and teams will stay away from him, but I would expect the Patriots to allow Bennett to field offers in free agency, but for some other team to far out-pay what the Patriots have allotted for the position.
New England has other interesting free agents like CB Logan Ryan and arguably the more-important FS Duron Harmon, who also deserve the “will they take less to stay in New England?” line of questioning. If Hightower and Bennett are any indication, the Patriots free agents will rightfully squeeze the team for every dollar they can get.