Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hightower's Fit In New England Isn't Necessarily His Fit Elsewhere

The first big wave of free agency has crested and broken on the shore, yet Dont'a Hightower is left waiting for another big breaker.

Chances are, what he's going to get is being caught in a rip tide that brings him back to Massachusetts.

The New England Patriots' wayward son was given the opportunity to seek a blockbuster deal on the open market, looking to cash in on what has to be the most under-the-radar elite tenure in the National Football League for the past couple of seasons, but has thus far not found the kind of money that some of his former teammates have.

For example, former Patriots' defensive end Chandler Jones just signed a monster deal with the Arizona Cardinals - a five-year, $83 million contract with $53 million guaranteed - to remain in the desert, while former teammate Jamie Collins signed a mega-extension (four-years, $50 million with $26 million guaranteed) with Cleveland to anchor their linebacking corps.

But the Patriots dealt those two away, not wanting to deal with attitudes or protracted negotiations for the type of money that they could possibly command in free agency.

The Patriots feel differently about Hightower.

Surely, Hightower is worth at least what Collins got, yet he remains treading water - and Bill Belichick remains waiting to reel him in when the time is right.

The Alabama product is already a legend in New England, making game-saving plays in two different Super Bowls, plays that were directly responsible for two of the five Lombardi trophies now residing at One Patriots Place in Foxborough - and both plays demonstrate what makes Hightower the best big game linebacker in the league.

In Super Bowl 49 against Seattle, the Seahawks were down by four to the Patriots with under a minute left in the game, but had driven down to the New England five-yard line and were poised to take the lead.  The Seahawks had the leagues best rushing attack and two time outs working in their favor, and on first and goal from the five, the handoff went to the league's best running back, Marshawn Lynch...

...and "Beast Mode", as Lynch is called, cut through a hole between left guard and left tackle and appeared to have a clear path to the end zone, but Hightower, who was met by Seattle's massive left tackle Russel Okung at the three and seemed to be pinned to the inside, instead fought through the block and got a shoulder on Lynch's right thigh, dropping him at the one.

The rest, as they say, resides in Patriots' lore as on the very next play cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a Russell Wilson pass to preserve the Patriots' Championship - and his strip sack of Atlanta's Matt Ryan in Super Bowl 51 set in motion the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

But as we know so well, head ball coach Bill Belichick doesn't pay players based on past accomplishments, he pays them for what the market will bear in time with his future value to the team - so based on Hightower's age (27), experience in the system and leadership qualities, shouldn't them value him enough to lay out huge money for the guy?

The Patriots have plenty of cap space remaining ($34 million as of this writing) to make a deal with Hightower, as numbers being thrown around by football experts estimate that a fair deal for the linebacker would be in line with Luke Kuechly money, five years worth $61 million with half of that guaranteed - or roughly $12.2 million per year.

That's a significant increase in the extension proposal that the team offered Hightower at the start of the 2016 season, rumored to have been in the neighborhood of $10 million per season, but nearly as much as they would have paid him on the franchise tag, which would have been a little over $15 million - a little pricey considering that the tag includes the top average salaries for both inside and outside linebackers, of which outside linebackers make significantly more money.

That said, why didn't the Patriots just franchise him, or at least use the transition tag to make sure that they would be given the chance to match anyone else's offer?  Part of that has to do with Belichick's well-known respect for his players, combined with his desire to stay away from situations that take away his leverage in negotiations.

Belichick's respect for his players prompted him giving Hightower the opportunity to offer his services on the open market and to collect offers for said services.  Placing him on the franchise tag would have prevented him from doing so and may have lead into some acrimonious feelings between player and management - end even though the transition tag would have been feasible as well...

...but that could have ended up costing the team more in the long run, as to retain Hightower, the Patriots would have been forced to match any offer put on the table by another team.  Another way Belichick could have gone would have been to place him under the non-exclusive franchise tag, in which Hightower could have negotiated with another team and the Patriots would have the right to match the offer.

The limitations of the non-exclusive tag are binding in favor of the Patriots in this case, as if a team made an offer and the Patriots refused to match, New England would receive the team's first round draft pick, plus the following year's first-rounder.

So allowing Hightower to reach the open market was the only way to keep everyone happy.  Belichick could let the market dictate Hightower's worth and also give him the opportunity to make a counter offer without being locked into a certain dollar amount - but the situation remains fluid as Hightower is still out there, and being courted by a few teams.

But for a player as dynamic and versatile as Hightower is, why hasn't he signed elsewhere?

The popular opinion is that he's biding his time and waiting for a bidding war to start, while still others believe that Hightower has over-estimated his worth on the open market - ala Wes Welker - and wants to give the market more time to develop.

The truth is probably in the middle somewhere, but at least one AFC general manager has said that he expects that Hightower will return to New England on a team-friendly deal - not because the market isn't there for him, but because he fits in with what New England does on defense, and that wouldn't be true for many other teams.

Coming out of college, Hightower didn't have a true position.  Some saw him as strong-side linebacker, some as a defensive end - but Nick Saban, his coach at Alabama considered him a pure inside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, playing the "scraper" position.  The scraper will be the more athletic of the two inside linebackers and by definition will plug the gap left by the "Mike" linebacker in the running game, and will blitz in the gap left by double teams on defensive linemen in the passing game.

They also will shadow mobile quarterbacks.  Hightower does all of these things, but does so from the weird variety of alignments that Belichick and his defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dream up - but he is most effective when the defense is aligned in what is known as the Big Nickel, which uses an extra safety that reduces down onto the second level and becomes, essentially, a weakside linebacker, taking on the "scraper" duties and allowing Hightower to flow to the football unabated.

Through the usage of this alignment, Hightower has become one of the best blitzing linebackers in football and almost always seems to be in the right place at the right time - one only has to revisit Super Bowls 49 and 51 to see prime examples of this.  But the Patriots have incorporated his skill set into their defensive scheme in order to free him up to do the good work that he has...

...and the fact of the matter is that there are very few teams, if any, who can plug Hightower into their defense and count on the same sort of elite production, given the fact that he will most likely be exposed to more obstacles on his way to the football.

To further elaborate, in the past few days since the start of free agency, the Patriots have re-signed two of their most important core players in order to keep the Big Nickel viable - safety Duron Harmon, who has proven himself to be one of the premier centerfielders in a league full of single-high safeties, and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who commands double teams and creates gaps for linebackers to flow to.

The Big Nickel is not possible without Harmon's sideline-to-sideline agility and instinctive angles to the play, nor is it possible without Branch taking on double teams.  In Belichick's philosophy, every player is asked to do one job - maybe two - and most players are versatile enough to be schemed into the game plan differently each week, and that goes for Hightower as well.

There is no doubt that Hightower deserves a pay raise, but in the end, he is part of a winning formula on a New England that will figure out a way to go on without him.  They value him enough to have offered him eight figures annually as part of an extension, then showed him enough respect to let him hit the open market to discover what his value was around the league.

A few years back, the aforementioned Wes Welker over-valued himself on the open market and ended up burning enough bridges to make his return to New England impossible - a sentiment echoed by Patriots' owner Robert Kraft who stated that if it was just a matter of a million or two to keep Welker in the fold, that wouldn't have been a deterrent to bringing him back, but his mouth and attitude were.

It looks as if Hightower's value is well below what he could have made with the various tags, but possibly more than the $10 million a year he was offered last offseason, and Hightower hasn't burned any bridges and has, in fact, kept in close contact with the team as he travels about - so the possibility of him landing back home appears to be very good... if New England ponies up a Kuechly-like contract that will give him $12 million annually, it should satisfy all concerned, then Hightower and the Patriots can get on with the business of football, and leave all of this money nonsense in the past.

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