By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots have a big decision to make on linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Either way, it’s going to cost them big-time.
The NFL franchise tag period begins on Wednesday, Feb. 15. Teams can apply it to one of their free agents-to-be between now and March 1 at 4 p.m. EST. The New England Patriots have not applied the tag since 2015, but could they be in line to use it in 2017?
The NFL has not released the official salary cap number for 2017, but it is expected to range from $165-168 million. The franchise tag number for a given position is listed as a percentage of the salary cap; the percentage is calculated by dividing the sum of the past five salary caps by the sum of all franchise tags at a given position in the past five years.
Pro Football Talk reported on Wednesday that a “source with knowledge of the situation” provided them the percentages for 2017. While the numbers have yet to be officially released, it’s generally accepted that the franchise tag for linebackers will cost about $14-15 million; PFT estimates it at about $14.37 million.
The question for the Patriots, now, is whether they will apply that franchise tag number to unrestricted free-agent-to-be Hightower.
A defensive captain who has commanded respect in the locker room, called signals on the field, and made game-changing plays in both of the last two Super Bowl wins for the Patriots, Hightower carries significant value to the team – perhaps more than any other defensive player. The Patriots also lack depth at the linebacker position behind Hightower; Jonathan Freeny, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, and Elandon Roberts would be the projected replacements, but none would deliver close to the same kind of production.
While it appears that Hightower will test the free agent waters when NFL free agency begins on March 9, it’s imperative for the Patriots to retain him with a long-term extension as the 26-year-old enters his prime with no viable replacements behind him on the depth chart. Unfortunately, the only way for the team to make that happen may be to apply the franchise tag.
Of course, $14-15 million is a huge number for an inside linebacker, even if it’s a guy like Hightower who is arguably the most important player on the Patriots defense. Because dynamic edge rushers like the Broncos’ Von Miller and the Chiefs’ Justin Houston have been designated as “linebackers” in recent years, the overall franchise tag number for the position is comparable to that of defensive ends, which PFT estimates will cost about $16.7 million in 2017.
Do the Patriots want to overpay for Hightower for a year in the hopes of ironing out a long-term extension, which may actually save them money and cap space in subsequent seasons? It would not be the first time they made such a series of moves. In 2010, they took Vince Wilfork to the edge before making him the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL at the time.
Wilfork signed a one-year, $7 million tender on Feb. 22, 2010, under the non-exclusive franchise tag with the Patriots. He then signed a five-year, $40 million extension on March 6, just one day after the start of NFL free agency. The Patriots made similar moves when they franchised Logan Mankins in 2011 and Stephen Gostkowski in 2015, before signing both to lucrative extensions.
The Patriots certainly have no desire to pay Hightower anything close to Von Miller money – or pay him $14-15 million for any more than the one year under the non-exclusive franchise tag. But Hightower is likely to field free agent offers from other teams and if the Patriots want to keep him long-term, they may need to go down the same path that they took with Wilfork and make him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league.
The comparison for that kind of deal would likely be Luke Kuechly, who signed a five-year, $61.8 million deal with the Carolina Panthers in 2015. The big number there is the whopping $34.3 million guaranteed. The Patriots guaranteed Devin McCourty $28.5 million in his 2015 extension, so such a move would not be unprecedented – but it’s somewhat rare for them.
This is not the first time the Patriots have lacked leverage with a key free agent. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Hightower may just be that important to the team as it is currently constituted. In the past, they’ve gone the extra mile for players like Hightower; this time, the extra mile has to come at one of the league’s most expensive positions.
It’s likely to be a pricey offseason for the Patriots. To save themselves from losing one of their most important defenders, the franchise tag may be their only option.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.