The New England Patriots have another option to prevent free agent Dont’a Hightower from hitting the open market if they don’t wish to franchise tag or can’t reach a long-term deal with the linebacker.
NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport mentioned Wednesday on Twitter that the Patriots could choose to slap Hightower with the transition tag. So what exactly does that mean?
Tag figures haven’t been set yet, but transition-ing Hightower would lock in place a one-year contract worth upward of $11.925 million, which was the price in 2016. Other teams then would have the option of offering Hightower a contract worth any amount of money for any number of years. The Patriots would have the right of first refusal. If the Patriots matched, Hightower would remain in New England. If the Patriots chose not to match, Hightower would be let go for free.
With the transition tag comes more risk, because if Hightower was franchised and the Patriots chose not to match, the other team would be forced to give up two first-round picks. The transition tag would remove leverage and bargaining power from Hightower, however. The transition tag takes away a player’s ability to negotiate with other teams.
The Patriots’ best course of action still is to reach a long-term agreement with Hightower before March 9 at 4 p.m. ET, when the new league year begins and free agency opens. But if they can’t reach an agreement by next week, the transition tag at least would give them the formal ability to match any offer given to Hightower.
The franchise and transition tag window opened last Wednesday, and it closes March 1 at 4 p.m. ET. The Patriots have another six days to make a decision.
In an interview with ESPN, Hightower didn’t seem opposed to being franchise tagged, which would ensure him a one-year contract worth upward of $14.129 million. The Patriots might balk at franchising their linebacker, however, because it actually removes their bargaining power. Hightower won’t sign a contract close to $14 million per season, so why agree to a deal when he could repeat this process again next offseason while making that much in 2017?
Regardless of what the Patriots do, bringing back Hightower should be their No. 1 priority this offseason. He’s an all-around player who stays on the field for all three downs and excels as both a run defender and a pass rusher. He’s also adept in pass coverage, especially near the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots also only have Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Rob Ninkovich, Elandon Roberts, Jonathan Freeny and Brandon King signed for the 2017 season at linebacker. Ninkovich can be an every-down defensive end, but his ability at linebacker is limited. Van Noy, McClellin and Roberts could eventually develop into every-down linebackers, but they lack Hightower’s elite ability.
The Patriots already traded away Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. They can’t afford to now let Hightower walk in free agency.
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