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.

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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. 


 

Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

Report: Patriots asked Seahawks about a trade for Richard Sherman

PHOENIX -- The Patriots pulled off what many considered a surprise free-agent signing when they acquired corner Stephon Gilmore. As it turns out, before they picked up the former Bills cover man, they inquried about a separate move that would have been even more eye-opening. 

According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, ahead of coming to a deal with Gilmore, the Patriots were among the teams that spoke to the Seahawks about a potential trade for Richard Sherman.

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During the NFC coaches breakfast on Wednesday morning at the Arizona Biltmore, Seattle coach Pete Carroll acknowledged that multiple teams have contacted the Seahawks about Sherman. But, Carroll said, "I don't see anything happening at all."

Sherman, who turns 29 next season, will make $11.431 million for 2017. He's due $11 million in the final year of his contract in 2018.

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

Rivera: Ealy 'a gifted young man,' can reascend 'if he listens'

PHOENIX -- The Patriots picked up Kony Ealy, who a year ago put together one of the best defensive performances in Super Bowl history, by exchanging a second-round pick for a third-rounder earlier this offseason.

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How exactly was a 25-year-old defensive end with loads of talent available at that price? Apparently he had some trouble listening to the coaching staff in Carolina.

During the NFC coaches breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore on Wednesday morning Panthers head coach Ron Rivera praised Ealy for his ability, but he acknowledged that Ealy's production waned in part because the Carolina coaching staff had a hard time getting through to the player involved. 

"I think sometimes when you have success, you kind of fall back into a little bit of something," Rivera answered when asked if Ealy had difficulty taking coaching. "But at the same time, for us, we looked at [the trade] as an opportunity -- as [general manager] Dave [Gettleman] said -- to find some gold. We moved up in the second round. We have two picks in the second round . . . We feel we'll be able to fill a need so we're pretty excited about that opportunity."

Ealy, who has one year remaining on his rookie contract, figures to factor heavily into the rotation at defensive end for the Patriots since Bill Belichick and his coaching staff watched both Jabaal Sheard (Colts) and Chris Long (Eagles) depart via free-agency, leaving Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich as the primary holdovers on the edge from last year's Super Bowl-winning roster. 

In Super Bowl 50, Ealy tied the Super Bowl record with three sacks. He also recorded an interception and forced fumble in the game -- becoming the only player in Super Bowl history to record multiple sacks and a pick -- and he did it all in 23 snaps.

Last season Ealy started the first six games of the regular season for the Panthers, eventually coming off the bench for the final 10. He saw 58 percent of Carolina's defensive snaps and recorded five sacks as well as an interception. He had nine regular-season sacks combined in his first two seasons as a pro.

So what kind of player will the Patriots be getting in Ealy, I asked Rivera? A good one, he replied, if he's willing to learn everything Belichick throws at him.

"I think they got a guy that has the skill set, that's flashed in opportunities to show people what he's capable of doing," Rivera said. "And at the end of the day, if he listens and does things that coach asks of him, I think he's got an opportunity to reascend and be that type of player. I mean, he is a gifted young man."

Rivera added: "There's nothing physically that kept him from being [more consistent]. You saw the flashes. If you watch the tape, you see these flashes throughout. Sometimes when you see those, you wonder, 'Eh, did we make the right decision?' But at the end of the day, the proof will be in the pudding. We'll know -- once we get through this draft, as to what we were able to accomplish -- whether we did or didn't."

Will Ealy be able to turn those flashes into more consistent production? Will the Patriots coaching staff be able to reach him in a way that those in Carolina apparently could not? 

All that remains to be seen, but Belichick may have had an opportunity to hear a little more about his new defensive end Wednesday when he spoke to Ealy's college defensive line coach for about a half-hour while scouting prospects at the University of Miami pro day, according to the Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter.