Yesterday, Adam Schefter reported that the New England Patriots will not place the franchise or transition tag on linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Consequently, the defensive captain and signal caller is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agenct once the new league year starts on March 9.
With that in mind, let’s take a look ahead at what are the next steps ahead for Hightower and the Patriots.
Extension before free agency
While the two sides will not use the tag to keep Hightower from hitting unrestricted free agency, there is a chance that he won’t do just that after all. With the market not opening until March 9, 4:00 pm ET, the Patriots are still in a position to potentially reach an agreement with the 26-year old until then. Furthermore, for the next five days, New England has the exclusive negotiating rights with Hightower’s camp.
Legal tampering period
After those five days, the NFL’s legal tampering window opens. At that point, teams’ exclusive negotiating rights get lifted as all 32 clubs can start talking to impending free agents. While no deals can be reached yet – except by the organization still holding a player’s rights – the basic outlines of a deal can be discussed and formally agreed to.
If the Patriots have not yet re-signed Hightower by then, he should get a clearer picture of how his market might develop. Fellow defensive team captain Devin McCourty took the same approach two years ago. He was about to become a free agent and assessed the market during the legal tampering period. Throughout this he kept in touch with the Patriots’ front office, which ultimately led to him re-signing in New England.
If New England and Hightower have not agreed to an extension by the time free agency starts on March 9, the Pro Bowler is free to sign wherever he wants to. This means that there are two realistic scenarios:
1. Hightower leaves the Patriots: The team captain receives an offer by another team that New England – if even asked to do so – is unwilling to match. Consequently, Hightower accepts and leaves Foxboro to play elsewhere in the future. Given how highly regarded of a free agent he is, the contract Hightower signs would likely result in the Patriots receiving a high 2018 compensatory draft pick.
2. Hightower tests the market but ultimately re-signs with the Patriots: Similar to McCourty’s situation in 2015, Hightower could still return to New England even after having actively tested the open market. If both team and player representatives keep an open dialogue throughout the process, this might result in the Patriots being given the chance to match the most attractive offer by another team. If they do or otherwise convince the linebacker to stay, he will remain in New England.
The Patriots could still use the tag
With Hightower not getting tagged, the Patriots could decide to use it on another player, potentially to buy time to reach a long-term agreement. However, given the financial investment if no deal is reached with the tagged player relative to the list of free agents New England has, it seems unlikely that this will happen.
The Patriots not placing the tag on Hightower is no definitive sign either way if he stays with the world champions or not. It simply is one less way to keep him next season, but there are others to ensure that the team captain returns. As outlined above, things might start to heat up once the legal tampering window opens – so don’t expect any movement before that.