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Dont’a Hightower named the Patriots’ most overpaid player, but is he really?

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Hightower is scheduled to hit the Patriots’ salary cap with $10.9 million this year

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While Julian Edelman ultimately took home the MVP trophy after the New England Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 53, seeing Dont’a Hightower receive it would also not have been a surprise. The veteran linebacker, who played 56 of his team’s 65 defensive snaps against the Los Angeles Rams, had a dominant game after all: he finished the contest with 2.0 sacks, a quarterback hit and a hurry, all while serving as defensive on-field signal caller.

Hightower played a key role in the Patriots’ historic defensive effort, showing once again his ability to step up when the lights are brightest and why he is as valuable a player as any in New England. And yet, the 29-year-old has been named New England’s most overpaid player in a recent article written by Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox. The rationale behind nominating the three-time champion for the title was presented as follows:

Is Hightower a good player? Yes. Is he important enough to the New England defense to warrant a cap hit of $10.9 million? Probably not. Hightower has played in just 20 games over the past two seasons and had an average season in 2018. In 15 games last year, Hightower produced 48 tackles, one sack and one interception. These are not bad numbers, of course, but they aren’t the numbers one would expect to see from one of New England’s highest-paid players.

Statistics are often used to justify or criticize a player’s contract, and this also appears to be the case here. While the numbers may not be particularly impressive when it comes to Hightower’s 2018 season— one during which he played 951 of a possible 1,231 defensive snaps (77.3%) — they only tell one part of the story: his role at the heart of the Patriots’ defense also needs to be pointed out in order to properly assess Hightower’s value.

As one of the most experienced players on the unit, the former-first round draft pick has been chosen to call the defensive signals on the field and ensure that his ten teammates are lined up properly. This does of course not get reflected on the stat sheet, but it is still important context needed to analyze Hightower and his value as a leader of the Patriots defense — one that the Bleacher Report story presents without mentioning his playoff contributions either.

When it comes to the actual deal, Hightower may in fact not actually be ‘overpaid’ (no matter how this phrase is defined). His 2019 salary cap hit of $10.95 million is the eight highest among all linebackers in the NFL, and presents fair market value when looking at the players around him. One of them is the Carolina PanthersLuke Kuechly ($9.96 million), who might just be the league’s best linebacker but still saw his deal get restructured earlier this offseason.

The four-year, $35.5 million contract that Hightower signed with the Patriots after testing free agency to assess his market value was a good deal for both parties in 2017, and it still is today given the linebacker’s contributions last season and how they project to look like heading into 2019. From a league-wide perspective, it is therefore difficult to label him as ‘overpaid’: Hightower is among the NFL’s better linebackers and he is paid as such.

Now when it comes to the Patriots themselves, one could say that he is overpaid — one player on the team has to have that title for that specific argument’s sake, right? But looking at it that way, Michael Bennett’s $6.5 million cap number could also be mentioned; he has not yet played a game for the Patriots, after all, and it remains to be seen whether or not he is worth that big an investment. Or how about backup quarterback Brian Hoyer’s $3.0 million, despite him rarely seeing the field?

The point is this: with the exception of rookie deals, the market dictates how player contracts look like and by extension who is or is not overpaid. In Hightower’s case, there certainly is an argument to be made that he is compensated fairly when looking at the linebacker position as a whole across the league. Calling him an ‘overpaid’ player is therefore a tough sell — especially for a player that keeps making game-changing Super Bowl plays on a regular basis.