It appears the New England Patriots will allow linebacker Dont’a Hightower to test the open market when free agency opens on March 9th after bypassing the chance to place the franchise tag on him.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Network was the first one to report the decision by Patriots management. While the Patriots could re-sign Hightower ahead of the deadline to do so, all signs point to him earning free agency status.
Rapoport also noted that the Patriots value Hightower a lot, and would like to keep him around long-term. New England just didn’t want Hightower to play under the one-year tag if it came to that because of the cap hit the tag would’ve put on the Patriots salary cap with tons of free agents to retain.
Looking at the defensive side of the ball, Logan Ryan, Alan Branch, Chris Long, Barkevious Mingo, and Jabaal Sheard are all set to become free agents, while Martellus Bennett and LeGarrette Blount will also be in need of new contracts.
Blount is more likely to leave the Patriots than Bennett, as Rob Gronkowski‘s long-term health remains a big question mark. The Patriots and Bill Belichick love their two tight end sets, as Gronkowski paired with Bennett on offense gives the Patriots arguably their best tight-end duo since Gronkowski was paired with Aaron Hernandez.
With the Patriots having James White and Dion Lewis at running back, it makes Blount expendable. The team could also use their first-round pick to draft a running back, which would then also signally the ending of Blount’s time with the Patriots.
After trading away Jamie Collins in-season and trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals over last off-season, it seems very unlikely that the Patriots will let Hightower walk away for the price of nothing. You especially have to value Hightower’s elite play making skills, which have been both timely and clutch in the Patriots two most recent Super Bowl wins.
In Super Bowl 51, Hightower stripped-sacked Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to help ignite the Patriots’ epic 25-point comeback. Hightower’s stuff of Marshawn Lynch at the goal-line in Super Bowl 49 also helped setup Malcolm Butler‘s game-winning interception of Russell Wilson.
Overall for the 2016 season, Hightower had 65 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and 1 forced fumble.
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