There’s only one place to go to know exactly what the Patriots plan to do this offseason. It’s a place more mystical and inscrutable than Stonehenge. It’s a dome more sacred and wondrous than that of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s one of the wonders of the modern world. It’s the mind of Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Tuesday was the start of the NFL’s legal free agent tampering period, and Thursday marks the start of free agency. Only Belichick knows exactly how the Patriots plan to proceed in an offseason with a lot of moving pieces — and pieces of a Super Bowl champion that could be moving on from Fort Foxborough.
Let’s hope that plan includes backing up the Brink’s truck to retain linebacker Dont’a Hightower. If there is one unrestricted free agent the Patriots have to bring back, it’s Hightower, a hero of Super Bowls LI and XLIX, the linchpin of the linebacking corps, and the only truly must-sign free agent the Patriots have.
Belichick is the undisputed master of replacing players who were previously thought to be sine qua non to New England’s cause. But after discarding both Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the way to a fifth Super Bowl title, it’s going to feel pretty hollow if the Patriots are left with nothing but melted candles and memories of what looked like a formidable, young defense you could fall in love with.
As much fun as it is to be bandying about names like Adrian Peterson and Brandon Marshall, it feels like free agency is going to be about retention or subtraction, not addition for the Patriots. The team entered the offseason with a deep and desirable pool of 13 unrestricted free agents and a high-profile restricted free agent in cornerback Malcolm Butler, who was given the first-round RFA tender of $3.91 million Tuesday.
The UFA list includes Hightower, cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, defensive tackle Alan Branch, tight end Martellus Bennett, and running back LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots already have re-signed fullback James Develin and had defensive end Chris Long announce he won’t be back.
The fate of the other 11 remains uncertain, but Bennett always looked like a Darrelle Revis-like rental.
Speaking of Revis, he is pertinent to the plight of Hightower.
The victory dance being performed by Patriots fans over Revis’s demise after leaving the Patriots is being done to the tune of revisionist history. The story line surrounding Revis’s departure following the 2014 season has been embellished to the Patriots knew he was going fall off a career cliff and never wanted him back. That’s not true.
The Patriots tried to sign him to a contract extension during his one season here. They made what owner Robert Kraft termed “a very competitive offer” once they declined his $20 million option for 2015. Kraft said, “I hate to lose him.”
“We wanted to keep him. We wanted him in our system,” said Kraft at the 2015 owners meetings in Phoenix. “We have certain disciplines. We had hoped it worked out. It didn’t. We just don’t think about short-term decisions. For example, next year we have three very good young defensive players coming up. We have to factor that in.”
The three very good young defensive players that Kraft was referencing were Jones, Collins, and Hightower. The insinuation was that the Patriots had to part with Revis to sign those players. Was that just PR pablum? It’s possible that all of them could end up following Revis out of town. Hightower has the last bank account standing.
Belichick’s boat would still be named five rings if it weren’t for Hightower. With a damaged shoulder, he somehow managed to fight off a block and trip up Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, setting the stage for Pumped and Jacked Pete Carroll to literally throw the game away. There is no way the Patriots manage the largest comeback in Super Bowl history against the Atlanta Falcons without Hightower’s timely strip-sack of Matt Ryan. That was the turning point of the game.
Hightower is the heart and soul of this Patriots defense, the same way another guy who wore No. 54 for the Patriots, Tedy Bruschi, was.
There are those that will point out that Hightower, who turns 27 on March 12, has only played a full 16-game season once in his career. He has dealt with knee injuries each of the last two years, a sprained MCL in his left knee in 2015, and a partially torn meniscus in ’16. That’s a fair criticism.
It speaks volumes that when Hightower is missing you notice. That was the case when he got hurt in Denver in 2015. And the Patriots don’t have a lot of appealing options to replace Hightower. Shea McClellin essentially got benched in the Super Bowl. Kyle Van Noy is a Band-Aid. Elandon Roberts looks promising, but he too often looks lost in coverage.
Hightower is the defensive signal-caller. He is a bruising run stopper. He’s also one of the best pass rushers on a team that has a paucity of them. It would take multiple players to fill his roles. Since he came to the Patriots from Alabama he has been exactly as advertised by certified FOB (Friend of Belichick) Nick Saban.
“He said this guy will be on the field for you on every down, it’s just a question of where you want to put him,” said Belichick back in Houston.
“You can put him at the end of the line, you can put him off the line and you can rush him. He can do all those things. Not only that, High is smart. He’s tough. He gives us good leadership and a lot of the communication. We have some moving parts on defense, and High does a great job of sorting some of that out, making checks, having communication with the front, and getting that organized.”
Belichick and the Patriots worship at the altar of value. It’s the economics major in Belichick. Value has an entirely different meaning now than it did after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. The 2002 salary cap was set at $71.1 million. The 2017 salary cap is $167 million.
While the Patriots are flush with free agents other teams will court and covet they’re also flush with cap space. The Patriots enter free agency with $61.965 million of cap space, trailing only the Browns, 49ers, Jaguars, and Buccaneers.
There is money for Hightower, and he is the rare player Belichick can’t afford to let go.