Rex Ryan currently is unemployed. Therefore, the former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills head coach cannot declare himself the winner of the NFL offseason.
The New England Patriots swooped in and took the crown Wednesday when they re-signed linebacker Dont’a Hightower to a reported four-year, $43.5 million contract.
Hightower was the Patriots’ most important free agent this offseason. Had the Patriots not been able to re-sign their All-Pro linebacker, it would have put a damper on an otherwise wildly successful new league year, when, despite potentially losing Malcolm Butler, they added cornerback Stephon Gilmore, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, running back Rex Burkhead, defensive end Kony Ealy and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy while re-signing safety Duron Harmon and defensive tackle Alan Branch.
The Patriots, so far, have lost who they expected to lose in free agency. Cornerback Logan Ryan, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, linebacker Barkevious Mingo and tight end Martellus Bennett are gone. Butler could soon follow if he’s traded to the New Orleans Saints (that would have been tough to predict a month ago). Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden, wide receiver Michael Floyd, defensive end Chris Long and tight end Greg Scruggs are still available as unrestricted free agents.
Gilmore more than replaces Ryan, Ealy replaces Sheard, Allen replaces Bennett, Burkhead replaces Blount (or Bolden), and Cooks is valuable enough to replace Butler, though they obviously play different positions. Free agents or draft picks can replace the remaining Patriots free agents if they fail to sign.
The reigning Super Bowl champions are in perfect position to repeat because head coach Bill Belichick is treating the offseason like he’s playing a Madden franchise mode on easy with the trade override off.
And though the wait to re-sign Hightower scared the pants off of some Patriots fans (and it’s way too cold to be running around New England with no pants right now), it wound up being the smart move for the Patriots. They got their guy, and he didn’t cost as much as he might have before the league year began.
Hightower was the Patriots’ most important free agent because of how difficult it would be to replace him. There isn’t another player on the Patriots’ roster who’s a 6-foot-3, 265-pound linebacker who can rush the passer, stuff the run and cover running backs. There aren’t any on the open market or in the draft, either, because those players, outside of Hightower, don’t exist. Hightower, a captain, also brings leadership and experience to a locker room that might have some questions if head coach Belichick replaces Butler with Gilmore.
Keeping Hightower around for four more years confirms he’ll one day be held in the same regard as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. If he’s not already a Patriots legend based on plays he’s made in Super Bowl XLIX and LI, then he will be when his time with the team is up.
Though it might be unrealistic at this point, the Patriots’ next step should be doing everything they can to at least bring Butler back for the 2017 season. Butler would be the gravy, cherry on top or some other cliche to cap an otherwise incredibly successful offseason.
The Bills and Jets never did much during the actual games after Ryan he declared offseason glory. The Patriots will. It’s Super Bowl or bust for the 2017 squad.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports