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Patriots “didn’t even explore the possibility” of the transition tag for LB Dont’a Hightower

The Patriots have a completely different value in mind for their star linebacker.

The New England Patriots are letting LB Dont’a Hightower explore free agency before putting another contract on the table in order to remain productive and ensure their offer is within the window of Hightower’s actual value. The Patriots offered Hightower more than $10 million per year prior to the 2016 season, but that wasn’t enough to seal the deal.

The Patriots decided to not place the franchise tag on Hightower and to allow him to speak with other teams and establish a price. How far away are the Patriots and Hightower from striking an extension? Well, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo gives background on the recent negotiations.

“Dont’a Hightower is a guy that the Patriots would love to have back, but they would love to have him back at their number and that number was not as high as the franchise tag,” Garafolo explains. “A little bit of a surprise, maybe, they didn’t even explore the possibility of giving him the transition tag, which would have given them the right of first refusal on that one. But they let him go out there, they’re letting him explore the market and they would love to have him back, but the question is what kind of market is he going to find out there?”

The franchise tag represents the average of the top 5 contracts at a given position, and the franchise tag for linebackers was set at $14.55 million for one season- an inflated value because the figure includes 3-4 outside linebackers like Justin Houston that increases the total.

Former Patriots and current Cleveland Browns LB Jamie Collins just set the market for stand-up linebackers with a $12.50 million contract, which means that the franchise tag would have been far above and beyond the actual price tag of Hightower on the open market.

What Garafolo adds to the story is the Patriots decision not to “even explore the possibility” of the transition tag, which represents the average of the top 10 contracts and gives the team the “right of first refusal” to match any offer the player receives in free agency.

The transition tag value for linebackers was not formally announced, but it would have been roughly $12.25 million for one season, an incredibly reasonable figure for a player like Hightower.

The fact the Patriots didn’t even consider the transition tag means that the team wanted to reach a long term deal instead of a one-year band-aid with Hightower- and giving Hightower the ability to shop around in free agency represents an opportunity to maximize his value.

But the lack of a transition tag makes me wonder if the $12.25 million figure is too far beyond what the Patriots are willing to pay Hightower. The $10+ million offer came before Hightower was named Second Team All Pro, but still would have made him one of the top 5 highest paid linebackers in the league.

Collins has the highest stand-up linebacker contract at $12.50 million per season, with Panthers LB Luke Kuechly at $12.36 million per season. The next three linebackers are fairly close together, with Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner ($10.75 million), 49ers LB Navorro Bowman ($10.50 million), and Buccaneers LB Lavonte David ($10.05 million) all bunched together.

Hightower should enter negotiations with $11 million as his floor, while the Patriots are probably highlighting Kuechly’s $12.36 million as the absolute ceiling. The Patriots big hesitancy around a Hightower extension has to surround his inability to remain on the field, having never played 80% of the snaps in a given season.

The Patriots should offer Hightower a contract with playing time incentives, similar to the contract extended to Second Team All Pro RT Sebastian Vollmer back in 2013. Vollmer battled injuries his entire career, so the Patriots including huge snap incentives of 80% and 90% to increase his contract value. Vollmer was set to receive an additional $2 million if he played 90% of the snaps in 2014 and an extra $1.75 million if he played 90% of the snaps in 2015 and 2016.

If the Patriots offer Hightower $11 million as a base, with an extra $750,000 if he plays 80% of the snaps and an additional $750,000 if he played 90% of the snaps- for a total of $1.5 million- then Hightower would have the opportunity to match Collins’ top-of-the-market contract.

Of course, if the Patriots submit that offer, they have to hope that no other contender will laugh at the structure and give Hightower the $12.50 million offer without any playing time incentives.

Regardless of the final contract, we’ll soon hear leaks about what Hightower is hearing about his value in free agency and whether there is any chance the Patriots will want to match his contract demands.

Update: It looks like the Patriots and Hightower are on the same page when it comes to entering free agency.