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Comparing the new contracts for AFC East linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kiko Alonso, and how it affects CB Malcolm Butler

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The Patriots and Dolphins have signed their linebackers to contract extensions. Here’s how they line up.

The New England Patriots extended star LB Dont’a Hightower to a 4-year contract with a maximum value of $43.5 million, but he is unlikely to see that full amount.

According to NFL agent Joel Corry, Hightower’s contract is really 4-years for $35.5 million, with $17 million guaranteed at signing and $2 million in incentives per season. Hightower receives $1 million for playing 80% of the defensive snaps- something he has never accomplished in his career- and $500,000 each for making the Pro Bowl and for being named First Team All Pro.

So in reality, Hightower has signed a deal worth $8.875 million per season, with up to $2 million in incentives per season. That lower limit ranks 8th for linebackers in the NFL, while the maximum value would rank 3rd, behind Jamie Collins and Luke Kuechly.

The Miami Dolphins just extended restricted free agent linebacker Kiko Alonso to a 4-year contract for $28.8 million, with $18.5 million guaranteed. Alonso was a restricted free agent after missing the 2014 season with a torn ACL. He has accrued three NFL seasons with three separate NFL teams- the Buffalo Bills, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Dolphins.

The Dolphins had placed the first-round restricted free agent tender on Alonso, valued at $3.91 million for the 2017 season, just like how the Patriots placed the same tag on CB Malcolm Butler. The Dolphins are retaining Alonso at an average value of $7.2 million per season, which ranks around 13th in the league at the position.

The language of the new contract implies that Alonso inked a 3-year extension for $24.9 million beyond his projected $3.91 million cost for 2017 under the first round tender, per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo. In other words, Alonso’s deal was effectively constructured as a $3.91 million 2017 deal, with a three-year extension for $8.3 million per season.

That $8.3 million level is important because it would value Alonso as the 10th highest paid off-the-ball linebacker in the NFL- and it can be used as a reference point for the Patriots top two free agents this season.

First, while it’s unfair to only look at Alonso’s three non-restricted contract years- the Dolphins deserve credit for the $7.2 million 4-year value, not the cherry-picked $8.3 million extension- it serves as an interesting cost comparison for Hightower and Alonso.

Hightower’s contract will range from $8.875 million to $10.875 million, but that lower limit seems like a relative bargain compared to the $8.3 million Alonso is set to earn beyond his restricted season. Alonso hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year, although he did play 94% of the Dolphins snaps in 2016, and there’s no question Hightower is the superior player.

The initial reports that Alonso was guaranteed more at signing than Hightower is a surprise and could be a reflection of how the market valued Alonso- unless the Dolphins simply overpaid for their linebacker, which would be a totally Miami thing to do. The fact that Hightower and Alonso are even in the same ballpark is a positive for the Patriots.

Second, when you factor in the restricted year, we can draw parallels to Patriots CB Malcolm Butler and what is to come from a contract negotiation standpoint. The fact that the contract is viewed as an extension beyond his 2017 first round tender implies that the Dolphins negotiated from the leverage point of restricted free agency. Alonso was going to play 2017 at $3.91 million, and the real contract negotiation was for 2018 and beyond.

The Patriots approached Butler with a similar mindset; the cornerback will play 2017 at $3.91 million and any contract extension starts in 2018.

New England doesn’t view Butler as a clear #1 cornerback like a prime-Darrelle Revis or a Patrick Peterson or, somehow, a Stephon Gilmore. The next step down for cornerbacks are in the #8-13 range, from Giants CB Janoris Jenkins ($12.5 million) to new Titans CB Logan Ryan ($10.0 million).

Alonso’s standing as a restricted free agent could also have suggested that the linebacker would have received more money in free agency in the open market if he were an unrestricted player; he forfeit future earnings in exchange for immediate financial security.

So while Butler likely would come in the $13-14 million per season range as a top 5 cornerback if he were an unrestricted free agent, perhaps a more realistic point for the 2017 offseason would be in the $12-13 million range as the 8-10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL, similar to Alonso’s new-money ranking for linebackers.

Alonso’s guaranteed money of $18.5 million is almost exactly the same as his 2017 first round tender value and the franchise tag for linebackers in 2017 ($3.91 million and $14.55 million, for total of $18.46 million); this likely isn’t a coincidence. Alonso is probably receiving more guaranteed money upfront in exchange for less money over the length of his contract.

If Butler were to follow a similar contract as Alonso, he could be looking at a 4-year contract for $40.0 million, with $18.1 million guaranteed. This contract would say that Butler is playing the 2017 season under the restricted tender, just like Alonso, but that his pay for 2018 and beyond would match the likes of Jenkins and Lions CB Darius Slay as a top 10 cornerback- a pay cut in exchange for guaranteed money up front.

Additionally, if the Dolphins viewed Alonso’s restricted year as a given in contract negotiations, then it would be a shock to see an outside team like the New Orleans Saints disregard that negotiating leverage with Butler, in addition to forking over a top draft pick.

There is still plenty of negotiating to take place around Butler and his future. Perhaps this contract extension for Alonso could serve as a blueprint.