When New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower hit the open free agency market one week ago, it looked like a safe bet to see him sign soon – whether with the Patriots or another team. After all, he was too talented, too versatile and just coming off a signature performance in the Super Bowl.
Yet, Hightower and his camp took their time. After visiting the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Pro Bowler made his decision yesterday: He returned home to New England. It was the lone personnel move of the day. Let’s take a look at it and what it means for the team and the player.
For now, the linebacker depth chart appears to be set
With Hightower back in the fold, New England keeps its team captain, defensive signal caller and – simply – its best linebacker. The 27-year old can do it all and in an ideal world plays 100% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. This, in turn, has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the linebacker corps as it allows the team to use rather one-dimensional players alongside Hightower depending on down and distance.
Therefore, the Patriots do not appear to have an immediate need to address the position. All of last year’s linebackers return for another season and in some cases might be able to take advantage of a second year in the system (Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy). While New England could still try to find a second do-it-all player in the mold of Hightower, the team can now wait until the draft to acquire one.
Hightower becomes the NFL’s third-highest paid inside linebacker
The 4-year, $43.5 million contract Hightower signed yesterday, elevates him in the ranks of the top-paid players at his position. The yearly average of $10.875 million trails only former teammate Jamie Collins, now with the Cleveland Browns, and the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly. Collins and Kuechly’s yearly averages are $12.50 million and $12.36 million, respectively.
It is a bit surprising to see Hightower get almost $2 million less per year than Collins, though. While the Cleveland Brown is a superior athlete, he lacks Hightower’s consistency. Still, given how the market developed and putting Hightower’s injury history into account, the deal is a very good one for both player and club.
New England’s free agency approach works once again
The Patriots could have slapped the franchise or transition tag on Hightower to keep him from reaching the open market. However, the team opted not to do that and – as it did with Devin McCourty two years ago – gave the player a chance to explore his free agency value. While it was a risky move, it paid of for New England. The team kept an open and productive dialogue with its captain throughout the process; one that ultimately led to Hightower re-signing with the team – and proving that the gamble it took paid off.
The Patriots still have a lot of salary cap space
Entering Wednesday New England had around $31.4 million in salary cap space to work with. Depending on the structure and ultimate numbers of Hightower’s deal, the available space will naturally shrink a bit. According to patscap.com, the newly struck contract will leave the team with around $22 to $24 million left to operate with. This would place the Patriots at around 15th league-wide and – in theory – would be enough money to sign restricted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler to the long-term contract he has been looking for all offseason.