If the Patriots keep Dont'a Hightower in New England for 2017, it looks like they're going to have to make it a multi-year propsition.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team has told Hightower's agent Pat Dye that they will not be using the franchise tag to keep him around. The price tag associated with the franchise designation is expected to be just under $15 million.
The free-agency period begins with the start of the new league year on Mar. 9. The Patriots will have exclusive negotiating rights with Hightower until the legal tampering period on Mar. 7, but Schefter's acknowledgement that Hightower is "expected to test [the] market" makes it sound as though a long-term agreement between the two sides is not imminent.
Hightower was a first-time captain in 2016 as he helped the Patriots to their second Super Bowl title in the last three seasons. Just as he did when he tackled Marshawn Lynch short of the goal line at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, Hightower made a game-altering play in Super Bowl LI when he strip-sacked Matt Ryan to help fuel the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
The soon-to-be 27-year-old played in 13 games this season and recorded 2.5 sacks en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl. He served as the team's play-caller in the middle of the field and helped to bring along three linebackers in their first season with the Patriots -- rookie Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy -- after Jamie Collins was traded mid-season.
Hightower has played through injury at various points during his five seasons with the Patriots, missing 13 games in that span and playing a full 16-game regular season once (2013). However, when he's available, he sees the majority of the playing time. In 2016, he played in 83 percent of the snaps for which he was in uniform.
Asked about playing on the franchise tag earlier this month, Hightower replied, "That's a lot of money." Apparently the Patriots feel the same way.