Patriots

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. 


 

Five quick thoughts: Patriots put it all together against Falcons

Five quick thoughts: Patriots put it all together against Falcons

FOXBORO -- Here are some quick-hitting thoughts on the Patriots' 23-7 victory over the Falcons on Sunday night.

1) If the Patriots attacked this game believing that the best defense is a good offense . . . they were right. 

They controlled the ball for more than 18 minutes in the first half and ran for 92 yards on 18 carries (a 5.1 yards per attempt average) with four backs sharing the load. Rex Burkhead gave the team a spark with his speed and vision in his first game back since suffering a rib injury in Week 2. The success the Patriots had running the ball had the added benefit of opening up the play-action pass game and it helped protect Tom Brady. After taking two sacks in the first quarter and a monster hit (penalized for roughing the passer) from Adrian Clayborn in the second, Brady was fairly well-protected. 

PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 3

2) Tom Brady lamented the fact that he hadn't been more accurate in the red zone of late, but he was better in that area to help the Patriots pad their early lead. 

The Patriots went 2-for-3 in the red zone through the first half, with Brady hitting on touchdown passes to Brandin Cooks (which looked more like an end-around hand-off) and James White. Brady still had moments of inaccuracy. The pass he lofted before being croaked by Clayborn was a bad one that was intercepted. (The pick was wiped after the penalty was enforced.) He threw behind Chris Hogan on multiple occasions. He also had an odd throw float well out of bounds that was intended for Rob Gronkowski. But for the most part he was on point, completing 21 of his first 29 throws for 241 yards. 

3) The Patriots defense showed up in critical moments time and time again in this one. 

They stopped the Falcons twice on fourth down, and they allowed Matt Ryan and his offense to convert on just two of their first nine third-down plays. The Falcons coaching staff deserves plenty of criticism for going for it when they did, but with a banged-up secondary, going against the reigning MVP and one of the best receivers in the league, the Patriots responded.

4) Bill Belichick's run defense was particularly impressive in the first half on Sunday night, helping keep the Falcons from getting anything going until it was too late. 

They allowed just 30 yards on nine attempts in the first two quarters (a 3.3 yards per attempt average), with Malcom Brown, Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise all making impressive stops at, near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

5) The Patriots suffered a handful of injuries to key players that will be worth keeping an eye on moving forward. 

Malcom Brown left the game in the second half with an ankle injury. Their top defensive tackle this season, Brown's absence may be one reason for why the Falcons were able to pump up their rushing yardage to triple digits by midway through the fourth quarter. Dont'a Hightower also left the game and was announced as questionable to return with a shoulder injury. Hightower has had a history of shoulder issues and so perhaps this is an older injury that was re-aggravated. Chris Hogan also left the game briefly and was evaluated for a concussion, according to NBC's television broadcast. He later returned.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE