Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Ja’Whaun Bentley shared the bulk of the time at inside linebacker for the Patriots this season, and all are set to become free agents next Wednesday. Hightower and Collins very much are in decline (especially Hightower) and some team might overpay for the good-not-great Bentley.
So, regardless of where each player is next season, New England needs a new, dominant force in the middle of its defense. It just so happens that one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL now is available.
The Patriots absolutely should pick up the phone and give him a call. After all, they reportedly were looking at adding linebackers before Wagner’s release.
Wagner showed no signs of slowing down in 2021, racking up a career-high 170 combined tackles while earning his eighth consecutive Pro-Bowl nod. The Super Bowl XLVIII champion is a smart, productive linebacker with big-game experience. He also is a tackling machine, twice leading the NFL in total tackles.
It’s unclear whether Wagner will prioritize going to the highest bidder or joining a team that is Super Bowl-ready. It might turn out to be a combination of the two. Either way, there’s a chance Wagner becomes too expensive for the Patriots, who currently project to have just under $10 million in salary cap space.
However, the money shouldn’t get too crazy. Wagner will turn 32 years old in June and no longer is in a position to be paid like one of the best linebackers in football. If all it takes is, say, $8 to 10 million to bring him in, New England make an aggressive pursuit.
Wagner and Hightower roughly are the same age, with Hightower turning 32 this Saturday. But the future Patriots Hall of Famer looked like a shell of himself late this season and has battled injuries throughout his career. Wagner, on the other hand, still looks fresh and only has missed three games since the start of the 2015 season.
Hightower reportedly intends to play in 2022, meaning the Patriots likely would have to decide between him and Wagner. It shouldn’t be a difficult call; Wagner is the superior player at this stage of their respective careers.
There also is something to be said for how teams go about filling a void.
When New England cut safety Lawyer Milloy before the start of the 2003 season, it had then-31-year-old Rodney Harrison, an upgrade, ready to take over. That situation isn’t totally analogous, as the Patriots signed Harrison roughly six months before they released Milloy, but they nevertheless prevented themselves from regressing at a key position in the defense.
Long-term, the Patriots need to find a young player capable of leading the middle of the defense for years to come. Maybe that’s someone like Josh Uche or Cameron McGrone; maybe it’s a player like Nakobe Dean, whom Todd McShay believes New England could take with the 21st overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
But it would be unrealistic to expect such inexperienced players to offer Hightower-like production next season. Wagner? He could slide in and be even better than Hightower was in his prime.
The Patriots should follow Matthew Judon’s lead and recruit Wagner, a player who’s among the best in the league at a position New England must address this offseason.