Patriots To-Do List: To tag, or not to tag Hightower?

Patriots To-Do List: To tag, or not to tag Hightower?

What to do about High?

The most pressing personnel question facing the Patriots in this offseason surrounds a 26-year-old team captain and second-team All-Pro who, since 2009, has played on two BCS National Championship teams at Alabama and two Super Bowl champions with New England.

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

And Dont'a Hightower not only made the play that set up the play to win Super Bowl 49, he made the play that turned a smoldering comeback into an inferno in Super Bowl 51.

What’s not to like? In terms of impactful front-seven players, he may be team’s most vital. You could see it in the NFL Films "Sound FX" episode when he was the defense’s main conscience and communicator. He’s a run-stopper (witness the stuff of Devonte Freeman to start the second half in SB51) and a pass-rusher (his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the third quarter). He’s a little underrated in coverage, his savvy and decisiveness making up for the fact he’s transporting 265 pounds around in open space against quicker players.

Earlier this season, Hightower told me in the award-winning "Quick Slants the Podcast" segment “Hey! Wassyournumbah?!” that he was encouraged as a rookie to switch from 45 to 54 because of the linebacker legacy that number held thanks to Tedy Bruschi.

Hightower was a first-round selection in 2012 and, with the team $63 million under the salary cap and having already offloaded Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, the money is there to sew him up long-term.

The highest-paid linebackers in the NFL are outside linebackers such as Von Miller and Justin Houston. Former Patriot Jamie Collins just entered that realm as well with a four-year, $50M deal from the Browns. The highest-paid inside linebackers are Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Navorro Bowman. Hightower is an inside linebacker though he lines up on the edge as well in some sets. 

A deal that would average out at $12M per year and net him $35M to $40M in guaranteed money should be the goal for Hightower’s agent Pat Dye.

And that’s where the call gets tough for the Patriots. In the past three seasons, Hightower’s played 12, 12, and 13 regular-season games. He’s had knee and shoulder injuries and he plays a position in which there is no preserving oneself. Careers are short and violent.

To compare, Kuechly has missed nine games the past two seasons and his concussion issues at the end of this season were alarming. Wagner just played a full 16-game season this year for the first time since his rookie year. Bowman, a durable, three-time All-Pro, was limited to four games this season. And the Patriots have Hightower’s friend and predecessor Jerod Mayo as a cautionary tale as well.

Mayo agreed to a five-year extension at the tail end of his All-Pro 2010 season. Then knee and chest injuries robbed Mayo of 23 games over the next four seasons.

When Hightower’s healthy, he’s regularly on the field more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps. He played every snap against Houston in the Divisional Playoff Game. With his shoulder a little balky, he played just 52 percent of the snaps in the AFC Championship.

In the past three seasons, he’s played 67.9, 54.3 and 76.6 of the Patriots total defensive snaps.

The easiest answer – and one that it took me some time to realize – would probably be to use the franchise tag on Hightower. The cost will be about $15M for the season and, while that will prevent Hightower from realizing the windfall of a big signing bonus and the on-paper security of a long-term deal, he will have made $22M between 2016 and 2017. He’ll also be headed back toward unrestricted free agency next year as a 27-year-old with, fingers crossed, some years left to play.

Don't anticipate Hightower doing handsprings about that. He’s taken the leadership mantle the Patriots desired him to take and he’s done the things on-field one would expect an elite player to do. Will there be a “quo pro” to his “quid” or will the Patriots lock him down in the golden chains of the tag?

The tag window opened up Wednesday, so the team can make that play now if it wants to. 

I wouldn't expect Hightower to rail outwardly if he were to be tagged, but I think he'd expect a diligent effort to get something done between now and July 15 (the deadline for lifting the tag because an extension is reached), so the tag could be lifted before 2017 starts. 


 

Bills trade down, land a corner to help replace Gilmore

Bills trade down, land a corner to help replace Gilmore

Give the Bills some credit. On Thursday night they made the kind of move that even Bill Belichick might stand up and applaud. 

With an opportunity to sit at No. 10 overall and draft any number of players -- perhaps a quarterback not named Mitch Trubisky, perhaps the consensus top corner in the draft Marshon Lattimore -- they took advantage of the Chiefs' interest in Texas Tech gunslinger Pat Mahomes and traded out.

What they ended up with was the No. 27 overall pick, Kansas City's first-rounder next year, and an addition third-round pick this year. 

A corner-needy team after Stephon Gilmore signed with the Patriots as a free agent this offseason, the Bills watched Lattimore come off the board at No. 11 overall to the Saints. They also saw Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey head to Baltimore with the No. 16 overall pick.

But Buffalo held tight at No. 27 and still picked up one of the better cover men in this year's class. LSU's Tre'Davious White is the kind of player that new Bills head coach Sean McDermott believes will help solidify his secondary. 

"He plays inside, he plays outside, he's also a returner in terms of the special teams value," he told reporters, via Matt Fairburn of NewYorkUpstate.com, "so we feel good about it."

White is 5-foot-11, 192 pounds and was a four-year starter for the Tigers. Though he may have issues helping in run support, he seems ready to check talented wideouts at the next level after compiling a backlog of good experience against tough receivers in the SEC.

The pick wrapped up the night for Patriots competitors in the AFC East. All three clubs opted to go with players who will try to slow down Tom Brady and his offensive teammates twice next year.

The Dolphins went with a pass-rusher while the Jets picked up arguably the best defensive back in the class.

Best of BST Podcast: Charlie Weis

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Best of BST Podcast: Charlie Weis

On this episode of "The Best of Boston Sports Tonight Podcast" with Tom Curran, Michael Holley, Tom Giles, and Kayce Smith...former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis joined us in-studio to discus a wide array of topics. Also, the Celtics look to close out the Bulls, and Lou Merloni weighs-in on another dominating effort by Chris Sale.

  • 0:41 - Former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis joins BST to discuss what it was like coaching Tom Brady early in the quarterback’s career and how it came about that the Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the 6th round.
  • 3:18 - Weis gives us an insight into what Bill Belichick is like during the NFL draft, how trades are made while the draft is going on, and why the Patriots have struggled with getting tall wide receivers.
  • 7:38 - Weis tell us which quarterback in this year’s draft he thinks will be the best pro and how Jimmy Garoppolo compares to the QB’s in this draft class.
  • 11:15 - Discussion on if the Celtics would have a 3-2 series lead if Rajon Rondo did not get injured and how the Celtics have found a way to get the job done.
  • 15:37 - Lou Merloni joins BST to talk about Chris Sale once again dominating but not getting the win because of the lackluster Red Sox offense, and John Farrell letting Sale pitch in the 9th inning this time around.