No franchise tag was preferred news for Hightower

No franchise tag was preferred news for Hightower

Dont'a Hightower wouldn’t have turned his nose up to a $15 million salary in 2017 if the Patriots decided to use the franchise tag on him.

But it wasn’t what the Patriots linebacker preferred.

The music has started and the dance has begun between Hightower and the Patriots. His agents revealed on Tuesday that the team would not use the tag on him. That means Hightower will hit the free agent market next week where he’s likely going to get plenty of interest.

He’s going to seek the security of knowing where he’ll be for the next four or five seasons and the financial windfall a 27-year-old who’s won two Super Bowls in three seasons – and made game-altering and game-saving plays in each – will command.

Had he been tagged, the process for that would have been delayed a year and that security – albeit at a handsome price – would have stayed out of reach.

Not using the tag shouldn’t be read as a sign of non-interest by New England. More like an act of good faith.

Hightower’s going to start entertaining contract offers next week that could reach as high as $60M (remember, the cap is going to be between $166M and $169M). The Patriots – who are either miserly or value-conscious depending on your viewpoint – will hope that Hightower will give them a shot to match those offers or find tweaks to get Hightower to settle for less. For instance, guaranteed money and the amount Hightower will be paid in the first three years should be of primary importance. The professional lifespan of inside linebackers isn’t great.

The Patriots may not want to commit to Hightower into his 30s, but with $60M in cap space available this year and a very good roster sealed up through 2019, a shorter but more concrete contract could be their selling point.

It will be a process. But the opening riff is over. 

Patriots To-Do List: Keep chumming the water for Jimmy G

Patriots To-Do List: Keep chumming the water for Jimmy G

With the glow of Super Bowl LI finally beginning to fade -- a little -- it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. Over the next few days, we'll look at the Patriots' to-do list: Things they need to care of as the offseason begins. Today: What to do with backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

First, a live look at speculation regarding the eventual landing spot for Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. 

And it’s not gonna slow down. Garoppolo is the best (or at least the most promising) quarterback in captivity without a starting job in the NFL.

Since “I dunno” is an unacceptable answer, all manner of Garoppolo-related speculation has been loosed since the start of the 2016 season.

PATRIOTS TO-DO LIST:

This week, ESPN’s Ed Werder spitballed what he expected, which is similar to what MMQB poobah Peter King spitballed, both of which are different from what former Patriots front office man and Bill Belichick consigliere Mike Lombardi opined  during the season. 

Lombardi’s take, of course was similar to ESPN’s Adam Schefter’s guess, which was reported as fact, causing ESPN’s Trent Dilfer to say that Schefter was getting played by the Patriots, which caused Schefter to get rankled and say that he was just theorizing in the first place. Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, meanwhile, had a measured take during the Super Bowl, which is precisely the same information I’ve been handing you since November.

The Patriots are not going to park Garoppolo on the front lawn with a “FOR SALE” sign tucked under the wiper. If some team wants to walk up the driveway, knock on the door and ask, “How much for the Garoppolo you got parked out there?”, the Patriots may invite said team in for lemonade and a conversation. But he isn’t burning a hole in their pocket.

Let’s talk “value” for a second because it’s what drives every Patriots personnel decision. The value of Garoppolo currently is that he’s a very solid backup quarterback on a team that won the Super Bowl and will challenge for it in 2017. Tom Brady hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2008, but Garoppolo is insurance that – if Brady gets visited by misfortune – the Patriots won’t be screwed. Jacoby Brissett, the third-stringer isn’t at a point yet to insure success.

Is the security of having Garoppolo around “just in case” more valuable than the first- or second-round pick the Patriots could wring from the Niners, Bears or Browns? That’s a close call. And the indefinite nature of what the compensation might be – is it the 12th from Cleveland? Is it the 36th from Chicago? – means the Patriots can’t fully weigh value until they have a definite offer.

As the draft approaches, the urgency for teams interested in Garoppolo is only going to grow. The water is sufficiently chummed right now so that Garoppolo is the No. 1 offseason story in ClevelandSan Francisco and Chicago.

The collection of Deshauns, DeShones, Trubiskys and Mahomes populating the top of the 2017 draft class are going to make the sphincters of certain GMs tighten as late April approaches. The best offers may not be seen until the week of the draft. Or the weeks following when teams look at what they’ve wrought. Or even in August when, though it would put Garoppolo behind the learning curve in a new system, he might be a better option that the backup if some team’s starter gets broken. (See: Vikings, 2016).   

Even if the Patriots don’t find “value” commensurate with keeping Garoppolo around, there’s always the 2018 offseason. The Patriots could do with Garoppolo what they did in 2009 with Matt Cassel – franchise Garoppolo and try to deal him.

The tag will be (ballpark) $23M in 2018 which means the Patriots would have to carry that amount on their cap until they move Garoppolo. Also, the team that dealt for him would have to have that cap space available prior to the deal being made, since the salary travels with the player. Garoppolo and his agent Don Yee would then work out a long-term deal with the new team.

The Patriots couldn’t pull the tag from Garoppolo after he signed it, so, it would be wise of Garoppolo to sign it the second it’s slid across to him. If that time comes. Obviously, there are a lot of moving parts in that particular scenario but the value in trading Garoppolo at that point – meaning they’re getting something for a guy who would otherwise leave – is clear.

Andrew Brandt of MMQB thinks anyone expecting a first-round pick in exchange for Garoppolo is “delusional.” 

That’s a take. It’s also a fact that since 2003, the only quarterbacks to start in the AFC Championship that weren’t first-round picks were Jake Plummer (2005, a second-rounder) and Brady (’03, ’04, 06, ’07, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, a sixth-rounder) so valuing first-rounders is important.

But where a guy is taken should matter far less than what you can see (or have seen) he is capable of.

Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers and Mark Sanchez are the quarterbacks other than Brady and Plummer who’ve made it to the AFC title game since 2003. That’s 28 slots filled by eight guys. And there have been 40 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 2003.

Compared to any of the 40 selected (Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan among them), Garoppolo is the only one who demonstrated what he can do in a regular-season NFL game. That’s got to count for a lot.

I’ve been told to “not be surprised” if the Patriots don’t deal Garoppolo. And I won’t be. I also won’t be stunned if New England pulls a heist that has everyone saying, “Who knew?” 

So far, the Patriots are playing a “can’t lose” hand perfectly.
 

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.