Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Dont’a Hightower
Position: Move linebacker
Jersey number: 54
Opening day age: 32
Size: 6-foot-2, 260 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Hightower arrived in the NFL when the Patriots traded up in the first round of the 2012 draft to select him with the 25th overall pick. Bringing the Alabama product on board paid immediate dividends not just because he scored a touchdown in his professional debut. Hightower also earned a starting role in his rookie year and has continuously been one of New England’s most valuable players and a team leader both on and off the field since the first day he stepped onto the field.
Over his nine seasons since joining the Patriots, he has appeared in 117 regular season games as well as 17 playoff contests. While he has not been able to play a full season since 2013 due to a multitude of injuries — only one of them season-ending, tough (a pectoral tear in 2017) — Hightower repeatedly proved himself a difference maker for the team: he has a combined 30 sacks on his résumé, has recovered six fumbles and intercepted a pair of passes, while scoring two touchdowns and a safety.
His signature moments came when the lights were brightest. The four-time team captain earned the nickname “Mr. February” due to game-changing plays that helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls: he set up Malcolm Butler’s last-second interception by tackling Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line, forced a fumble during New England’s comeback against the Atlanta Falcons when he sacked Matt Ryan, and could very well have won MVP honors for his performance against the Los Angeles Rams.
What did his 2021 season look like? One of a league-high eight Patriots to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic — his son was born two weeks before the opt-out announcement was made — Hightower returned to the team last offseason. The veteran defender immediately resumed his role as a flexible move linebacker at the heart of the Patriots defense, playing both on and off the line of scrimmage depending on the situation and offensive alignment.
While he did miss one game each due to elbow and knee injuries, respectively, Hightower generally was a reliable presence for the team. The team captain appeared in 16 of 18 possible games and was on the field for 679 of a possible 1,135 defensive snaps (59.8%) during his 10th season in the league. Primarily, but not exclusively, used on early downs, he registered a combined 67 tackles — 38 of them versus the run — as well as 10 combined quarterback disruptions; among those were 1.5 sacks.
Hightower’s return did help improve a position group that struggled mightily without him in the lineup the previous season (it also allowed the Patriots to use fellow linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley in a more specialized role tailored to his skillset and strengths as a run defender). He also had some impressive moments, especially during the team’s seven-game win streak midway through the season: his performances against the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans were vintage Dont’a Hightower.
That said, his ups came with some downs as well. Some of those may have been the result of rust after sitting a year out, others the result of his age or lingering injuries. Regardless of the reason behind them, Hightower did show some inconsistencies in Year 1 after his opt-out. Two areas in particular stand out: pass coverage and tackling. Not only did he surrender 28 catches on 32 targets for 238 yards and a touchdown, he also missed 13 percent of his tackle attempts (10 of 77).
All in all, Hightower’s season was in a lot of ways like the Patriots’ as a whole. He did have some encouraging moments and was a valuable member of the club both on and off the field, but also failed to come up big in some moments that the team needed him to (e.g. on Jonathan Taylor’s game-icing touchdown run in Week 15). Whether that was a consequence of his 2020 opt-out or a sign of a player in decline has to be determined by New England’s decision makers; their answer will decide whether or not he will be back for an 11th season.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Hightower signed a standard four-year rookie contract upon arriving in New England, and later also saw the fifth-year option in the deal exercised by the club. His lone trip to free agency so far resulted in him staying with the Patriots via a four-year, $35.5 million contract. Hightower would again have entered free agency last year, but his contract tolled after he opted out of the 2020 season. Despite only one major payday to his name, his career earnings have been estimated at $52 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Hightower’s age and comparative one-dimensionality might limit his opportunities in free agency. That said, plenty of teams are in need of improved linebacker depth; adding a player of his experience and stature could be intriguing. Among those teams are the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders — the latter obviously being led by a pair of ex-Patriots in head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler.
Why should he be expected back? Hightower has been a foundational member of the Patriots defense ever since his arrival in 2012. Even though his statistics may not reflect it, his importance to the unit has not changed: he is a key communicator in the front seven and tone-setter both on and off the field. With New England possibly also losing fellow team captains Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and James White — as well as fellow linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jamie Collins — keeping Hightower would make sense.
Why should he be expected to leave? When Hightower entered the league, his versatility was one of his biggest assets: he was capable of lining up all over the defensive formation and an asset against both the run and the pass. A decade later, the Patriots use him primarily on early downs, while his value especially as a coverage defender has decreased. Accordingly, the team might be willing to move on and go in a different direction at this pivotal position within the New England defense.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Hightower will find his way into the Patriots Hall of Fame one day, but his immediate future with the organization is far less certain. The team could very much opt to let him go in favor of the younger Ja’Whaun Bentley, who was used in similar fashion in 2021 but might command a higher price due to his age. That said, keeping Hightower — due to the reasons listed above, including Bentley leaving to sign elsewhere — does not appear to be off the table either.
The two-year, $25 million deal signed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David last offseason could be a blueprint for the two sides. While Hightower’s total value and guarantees ($17.5 million) would likely be lower — he is less durable than David and more inconsistent in the passing game — the structure might be similar: Tampa Bay back-loaded it and added three void years to spread out the signing bonus. If the Patriots believe Hightower still has value to their defensive operation, he will be brought back.
Will the Patriots re-sign Dont’a Hightower?
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