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2022 NFL free agency: Dont’a Hightower becomes the Patriots’ free agent to watch with Trent Brown re-signed

Related: Patriots re-sign Trent Brown to reported two-year contract

NFL: NOV 18 Patriots at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ week started off in busy fashion. Not only are they reportedly hosting a group of free agents, including cornerback Malcolm Butler and running back Leonard Fournette, starting right tackle Trent Brown was also re-signed on a two-year contract.

With the 28-year-old back in the fold, New England has shored up an offensive line that saw some major departures last week. The club has also managed to return one of its biggest free agents left unaccounted for.

In fact, an argument can be made that only one of its priority players remains out on the open market right now: linebacker and long-time team captain Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower is one of five Patriots who are still unsigned as unrestricted free agents, but he enjoys a special status among them due to his contributions through the years — and due the position his plays. New England, after all, faces some questions at the off-the-ball linebacker spot even after acquiring Mack Wilson via trade and re-signing Ja’Whaun Bentley to a two-year deal.

Last season, Hightower appeared in 16 of 18 possible games and was on the field for 59.8 percent of New England’s defensive snaps. Primarily, but not exclusively, used on early downs, he registered a combined 67 tackles as well as 10 quarterback disruptions. He also continued to play his usual role as a team leader on and off the gridiron.

However, the Patriots want to get “faster, more explosive and put more playmakers on the field” this offseason, according to assistant coach Jerod Mayo. Hightower’s experience is unique among the team’s front seven, but one has to wonder whether or not he truly still fits the description of what New England is looking for heading into what would be his 11th season in the league.

His status is therefore one worth watching closely over the coming days and weeks. Hightower, after all, was a foundation member of the Patriots’ Dynasty 2.0 and as such directly responsible for three Super Bowl wins.

He has already done enough to earn his spot in the franchise’s Hall of Fame, but his spot on the 2022 team is far less certain. A quiet first week of free agency can be seen as proof of that.

As noted above, five members of the Patriots’ final 2021 roster are still remaining on the open market. Hightower is the most noteworthy of them, with the others as follows:

LB Jamie Collins Sr.: New England is apparently in no rush to bring Collins back after he served as a role player in 2021: talks between the two sides have reportedly not gone anywhere so far, with the 32-year-old remaining unsigned at the moment. It remains to be seen how soon or if this changes given that the Patriots seem to be headed in a different direction at their linebacker position.

DT Carl Davis: One of the under-the-radar re-signings of the 2021 offseason, Davis had a solid overall year in New England. That said, his spot on the roster can likely be improved upon after he ended with a playing time share of only 26 percent and was a healthy scratch for the playoff game in Buffalo. So far, the two sides have not reached any agreement to bring Davis back into the fold.

TE Troy Fumagalli: Three months after joining the Patriots in mid-May, the team waived Fumagalli with an injury designation. He spent the entire season on IR, and at best appears to be a candidate to be brought back as a low-cost camp body further down the line.

LB Brandon King: A core member of New England’s special teams group, King ranked fourth on the Patriots in kicking game snaps in 2021 and third with 11 total tackles. The 28-year-old is well respected inside the organization, so it would not be a surprise if he is brought back on a relatively cheap contract after all.

The Patriots could very well decide to bring Collins, Davis, Fumagalli and King back into the fold. Realistically, however, the latter appears to have the best odds at ultimately being retained by the organization.