Hightower is expected to visit the Jets on Monday and I believe that he will make his decision soon after that visit concludes. Here’s why.
When Hightower entered free agency, he had a wide range of suitors, from the Raiders and Saints, to the Dolphins and 49ers. All of these teams dropped by the wayside until reports surfaced that Hightower’s hometown Tennessee Titans were one of the front runners.
The Titans make sense as a landing spot for Hightower, beyond the fact that it would be a chance for him to return home. The Titans general manager is Jon Robinson, who was the Patriots director of college scouting when the team drafted Hightower in the first round of the 2012 draft. The Titans have a lot of cap space and they’re looking to find a starting caliber linebacker. Hightower fits like a glove.
But when ESPN’s Ed Werder gave a price range for Hightower at $10-13 million and said that was out of the Titans’ price range, that should have raised a flag. If the Titans with all of their cap space and knowledge about Hightower won’t give him top five linebacker money, what other teams are in a position to do the same? Hightower simply wasn’t going to be getting Luke Kuechly and Jamie Collins money in free agency.
And so when the Jets were linked to Hightower, on Hightower’s birthday nonetheless, we should pause and think about how the Patriots linebacker fits into the Jets roster. Hightower would replace longtime Jets LB David Harris and line up in the middle next to 2016 first round pick LB Darron Lee. He would play behind one of the stoutest defensive lines in football with Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams, and potentially Sheldon Richardson. It would be a fantastic run stopping defensive front.
But the Jets don’t have a quarterback. They’ll have 30-year-old WR Eric Decker coming off the injured reserve as their top offensive weapon. They misuse RB Bilal Powell. They don’t use a tight end.
This isn’t a case of the 2015-16 Denver Broncos, where the defense was good enough to compensate for an awful offense. There’s no Von Miller and there’s no incredible secondary. This Jets offense is going to be terrible to the point where New York won’t be able to compete.
Now I’m not counting out a Hightower contract with the Jets if they offer, say, $13 million per year, but I would be stunned if that happened. This seems to be a final meeting with a divisional rival to see if Hightower can understandably squeeze a little bit more out of the Patriots. Who can blame him?
I think this last-minute entry by the Jets reminds me of the final days of Devin McCourty’s foray into 2015 free agency. In 2015, McCourty almost signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and had a big contract offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars before ultimately re-signing with the Patriots after a late phone call from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Back in 2015, the “legal tampering period” spanned from March 7th through the opening of free agency on March 10th. The Eagles, Jaguars, and the New York Giants showed interest in McCourty on the 7th, with the Eagles naming McCourty “their top priority” and making “a strong push” to sign him on the 8th. The 2015 Titans started to show interest in McCourty on the 8th, too.
Well, on the night of the 8th, the Patriots and McCourty struck a long term extension, despite all the money from the Jaguars and the interest from the Eagles.
I feel that we’re about to see the same thing play out with Hightower. He’ll get his offer from the Jets, who will be glad to increase the price on their divisional rival, and the Patriots will give their counter offer and Hightower will make his decision on Monday night or on Tuesday morning.
I know that this is Hightower in free agency, while McCourty was brought back in the legal tampering period. But barring any surprises, “the industry assumption” is that Hightower will return to the Patriots for 2017.