Thursday, March 16, 2017

Patriots' Prodigal Son Returns - Hightower Re-signing Example Of Belichick Letting Market Set Price

"He arose and went to his father. But when he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran towards him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." - Luke 15:20

Bill Belichick may be a fatherly figure to some players on his team - and a harsh taskmaster, to be sure - as he genuinely cares about his charges, but when prodigal son Dont'a Hightower returned to Foxborough from his free agency tour, it's hard to imagine that Belichick ran to him, and even harder to imagine him falling on his neck.

For certain there was no kissing involved.

What was involved was $43.5 million - $19 million guaranteed - that will keep the heart and soul of the Patriots' defense in New England for the next four seasons and, at the same time, solidified the middle of a unit that led the league in scoring defense in 2016 and has, by all accounts, become even better while he was being wined and cupcaked by potential suitors.

But to assess how happy Belichick should be to have Hightower back in the fold, one only has to entertain the thought that the Dark Master eshewed the franchise tag for his defensive signal caller and told him to go see what he could find on the open market.  He did the same thing for Julian Edelman a few years back and, to a different degree, Wes Welker a few years earlier than that.

Letting the market set the price for players has long been a tactic utilized by Belichick, as he puts into play advanced metrics, gaining objective knowledge of a player's productivity, multiplying that by age and experience and injury history to form an estimation of that player's future production - then he factors in outside elements such as what the player's fit is in other programs.

Almost always, a player that is in the Patriots' program is there because it is his best fit, as Belichick's philosophy in regard to team building is to bring in players who can expand his options in the playbook rather than players whom he can mold into it.  It's not a subtle difference, but at times players become enamored with the notion that they can take their talent anywhere and be successful...

...and while that has been true for a handful of former-Patriots, it is the extreme exception rather than the rule.  Hightower probably could have gone to some other team - particularly one that runs a 3-4 base defense - and put up huge numbers in that the formation actually takes advantage of the downhill playmaking skills like his.

But so does the Patriots' philosophy in their 4-2-5 approach, a philosophy that helped Hightower to be recognized as the best blitzing linebacker in the NFL.

In the 4-2-5, also known as the Big Nickel, Hightower becomes a chess piece that defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can move around to present matchup problems for the opposing offense.  He can do this because both of his defensive tackles demand double teams which occupy four of the five offensive linemen, allowing Hightower to reduce down to what amounts to a stand-up defensive end with no one but a strong-side tackle to contend with.

The results are often game-changing plays, such as his strip sack of Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl, when neither the tackle nor the running back who stayed in for pass protection knew what to do with him lined up on the edge.

And that, as much as anything else, was due to the Patriots utilizing Hightower's skill set to open up plays in the defensive philosophy - and anyone who doesn't think the Big Nickel is such a big deal only has to look at the deals given to both defensive tackle Alan Branch and centerfield-safety Duron Harmon to know exactly how crucial the formation - and Hightower - is to the scheme.

Other teams realize this as well, but other teams didn't spend top draft capital collecting college players known to be "marginal" talents by expert evaluators in a general sense, but possessed the skill sets to implement a defensive philosophy not seen in the league in almost five decades, and never with the success in which Belichick has run it.

Part of that included Hightower, who was seen as a perfect fit as a "Will" linebacker in a 3-4 due to his ability to scrape off of blocks taken on by the "Mike" and quickly get to the ball, but what was so intriguing about Hightower was that he was just as successful with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, and had the lateral range to set the edge in the running game and blow up screen plays in the passing game.

So, in reality, there really isn't a linebacker quite like Hightower anywhere else in the league, as evidenced by his market forming slowly, and only the dysfunctional, cupcake-wielding Jets and the desperate "we-can-never-stop-the-Patriots-offense" Steelers showed interest, both of whom recognized - like every other team in the league - that he wasn't going anywhere but back to where he truly fit...

...and also evidenced by the fact that the deal Hightower eventually ended up signing was essentially the same one that Belichick offered him at the start of last season, tacking on an extra $750,000 a year to show his appreciation for a man that had done so much for the success of the New England Patriots - and this after showing Hightower the ultimate respect of allowing the market dictate what his worth was, and where he should be.

After all, in professional football, prodigal sons of Hightower's talent don't always return home - but Belichick knew this one would.

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