Entering the 2017 offseason, the New England Patriots’ biggest unrestricted free agent was linebacker captain Dont’a Hightower. With the Patriots opting not to place the franchise or transition tag on him, the defensive team captain was able to explore the open market to find the best deal.
Turns out the best deal was offered by New England: Earlier today, the 27-year old re-signed with the team on a 4-year, $43.5 million contract that includes $19 million in guarantees. Not only does this make him one of the highest paid inside linebackers in the NFL, it also solidifies the position on the Patriots’ roster.
That being said, let’s take a quick look at New England’s linebacker depth chart after re-signing Dont’a Hightower.
Re-signing Hightower is big for the Patriots on multiple levels. Not only is he a team leader and the defensive on-field signal caller, he also is the lone linebacker on the current roster that truly plays every down. Hightower is among the best players in the NFL against the run, an elite blitzer and has proven capable of making big plays in the passing game as well. In short: He is one of the best and most unique stand-up linebackers in the league and a key member of New England’s defense.
During his 2016 rookie season, Roberts has shown why the Patriots have chosen to invest a sixth round draft pick in him. He has established himself as a very good run defender, who should only get better - particularly against the pass and when it comes to play diagnosis - with more experience. Whether the same will hold true for Jonathan Freeny, coming off a stint on injured reserve, remains to be seen. While he will have a chance to earn a spot on the team, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots opt to give younger options a shot.
Kyle Van Noy
McClellin and Van Noy have joined the Patriots last season and both have mostly been used in the passing game. Whether as drop-back players in coverage or as edge rushers, the duo has seen some success in this area when playing alongside Hightower. While neither possesses the physical or big play abilities of former Patriot Jamie Collins, they - especially Van Noy - did allow the team to use Hightower in various roles while themselves proving to be solid contributors when on the field. Bates, on the other hand has not yet seen the field since joining the NFL last year. A potential edge rusher, he has to prove to be more than just a camp body to not get list in the position’s numbers game.
Retaining Hightower is a highly important personnel move for the Patriots. After all, he offers a skill set no other linebacker on the team’s current roster and few across the NFL possess. With him back in the fold, the unit keeps its top intact and could look to the draft to find depth options underneath.