The New England Patriots cannot wait to meet with Patrick Dye, Dont’a Hightower’s agent, at the NFL Scouting Combine before determining whether to franchise or transition tag the free-agent linebacker. That’s because the deadline to tag a free agent is Wednesday at 4 p.m., the same day the combine opens in Indianapolis, and Bill Belichick doesn’t exactly come off as a procrastinator or spur-of-the-moment type guy.

The Patriots undoubtedly have been deep in thought on this matter since failing to reach a contract extension with Hightower before the 2016 season began. If the Patriots still can’t extend Hightower before Wednesday, they must make a decision whether or not to franchise or transition tag the linebacker by 4 p.m.

If the Patriots choose not to tag Hightower, the potential to lose him as an unrestricted free agent significantly increases.

The Patriots have used their franchise tag nine times during Belichick’s tenure as head coach. They tagged players in 2002 (K Adam Vinatieri), 2003 (S Tebucky Jones), 2005 (Vinatieri), 2007 (CB Asante Samuel), 2009 (QB Matt Cassel), 2010 (DT Vince Wilfork), 2011 (G Logan Mankins), 2012 (Wes Welker) and 2015 (K Stephen Gostkowski).

So, they’ve used it on a kicker three times, and they’ve only used it once in the past four offseasons.

Under the franchise tag, NFL teams pay more but would receive two first-round picks as compensation if a player is signed away by another team. The transition tag is less costly, but the player is given away without compensation if the Patriots chose not to match another team’s offer.

The transition tag still takes away a player’s bargaining power, however, because they aren’t free to negotiate with other teams.

The difference between a one-year franchise tag salary and a one-year transition tag salary for a linebacker was $2.204 million in 2016. Hightower would earn more than $14.129 million in 2017 under the franchise tag and more than $11.925 million under the transition tag.

The Patriots should use one of those tags on Hightower, because they can afford it financially — with plenty of available cap room — and they can’t afford to lose him defensively after trading away similar talents in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins.

Hightower is impactful as a blitzer, run defender, in coverage and in the locker room as a captain. He’s a unique player who makes the Patriots’ defense better because of his skill and versatility.

He also has a knack for extraordinary plays in the Super Bowl which either can be chalked up to being clutch or a small sample size.

So, the Patriots have two more days to determine whether or not to tag their All-Pro linebacker. Perhaps they’ll wait until the salary cap in finalized, at which time the NFL determines tag figures. They also could wait until the deadline.

Regardless, time is running out, and we’ll soon know if the likelihood of Hightower returning in 2017.

Thumbnail photo via Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports Images