The market for Dont’a Hightower isn’t what I thought it was going to be. It isn’t what anyone thought it would be.
PATRIOTS REPORT: MARCH 13
- Report: Jets gave Hightower birthday cupcakes during his visit
- Stephon Gilmore hopes Malcolm Butler returns to the Pats
- Ealy thinks playing with Brady will help him learn how to sack QBs better
- Report: Patriots bring in Bengals RB Rex Burkhead for a free-agent visit
- Now there's another Gisele in the Patriots family
My guess before free agency was that a 6-4, 270-pound, 27-year-old linebacker who’d won two Super Bowls in three seasons and could do almost whatever you asked from wherever you wanted was going to be a valuable commodity. A week’s passed since teams could start courting. It’s been four days since free agency began. Hightower’s still out there, sticking out like a sore thumb in the top 10 of those “Hot 100 Free Agent Lists.”
While former teammates Chandler Jones (five years, $83M with $50M guaranteed) and Jamie Collins (four years, $50M with $26M guaranteed) got their set-for-life deals, the guy the Patriots deemed least expendable can’t get a reasonable sniff on the open market. A witch’s brew of circumstances led to this.
First, as terrific as Hightower is in the Patriots’ morphing, game-plan defense, he’s not easy to project. The fallback role for edge rushers like Jones, cover corners like Stephon Gimore, linebackers with Collins’ coverage and pass rush skills give them value when they walk through the door. Maybe they can do more than their baseline skill but if they can’t, their main role will be plenty.
Hightower’s primary strength is run-stopping at the second level and setting the edge. Could he be a pass-rusher like Jabaal Sheard? Sure. Like Jones or Von Miller? No. He’s not as long, not as sudden. In coverage, Hightower’s intelligence, anticipation and athletic ability are excellent. He can deal with tight ends and running backs but there are some limits if he has to get too far downfield or deal with a scatback-type.
Leading up to free agency, I thought Hightower’s multifaceted nature would be a blessing. There just aren’t many players like him. Turns out, it’s a bit of a curse. Great player. Nobody knows what to do with him.
Second, inside linebackers don’t get paid like elite corners, defensive ends or defensive tackles. Of the top 10 linebacker contracts based on average annual value, you don’t encounter an inside linebacker until No. 7 (Luke Kuechly seventh, $12.360M). Bobby Wagner and Navorro Bowman are 10th and 11th $10.75M and $10.5M. It’s a violent position with heavy attrition. It’s similar to the position they are primarily responsible for stopping: running back. Big, bell-cow backs are an anachronism and the reaction to that is that guys who stopped them aren’t as in demand.
Finally, I probably overrated the intangibles. That Hightower is descended from Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo and is equally outstanding a leader on and off the field doesn’t matter to teams looking for players. Or it doesn’t matter as much as whether or not a guy fits neatly into a “prototype.”
So here we are. Hightower doesn’t have a booming market and -- even if the reported visits with the Jets and Steelers do spark a bidding war -- he’s unlikely to get what Gilmore got (five years, $65M, $31M fully guaranteed). The whole scenario reminds me of Wes Welker’s free agent turn in 2013. The market he and his agent believed would exist never materialized. The Patriots filled his spot with Danny Amendola and Welker wound up in Denver, smiling through a painful press conference.
Hightower’s not going to have his spot given away like Welker did. But disillusioned by the process and perhaps pissed that the Patriots didn’t get him done before this unfolded, it’s getting easier to envision this not ending well. With a perception from other teams that Hightower is bound to return to the Patriots he might -- like Adam Vinatieri did more than a decade ago -- leave just to prove he will.
Before free agency began, Hightower told Adam Schefter he wanted to feel “loved and respected." Right now, I’d be surprised if he’s feeling much of either.