BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots want to keep free-agent-to-be Dont’a Hightower, but the defensive captain appears likely to hit unrestricted free agency. As much as the team would like to keep Hightower around, he could prove too expensive on the open market – but the Patriots appear willing to take the risk.

The Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe joined 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich on Tuesday to talk about the Patriots’ situation with Hightower and other potential free agents. Howe believes that Hightower will become a free agent without signing an extension or receiving a franchise tag from the Patriots, but said that the team could swoop in with a deal at the 11th hour – like they did with another key defensive player.

“I think [Hightower] probably does [hit free agency], unless they reach out the way that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft did to Devin McCourty a couple of years ago and give him their best and final offer on the eve of free agency,” said Howe. “My belief was that the Patriots were only going to franchise Hightower if they believed they could quickly turn that into a long-term extension.

“I don’t think they’re going to franchise him, and that’s going to lead to some tense, suspenseful moments when he hits free agency.”

On fellow free agent-to-be Martellus Bennett, Howe acknowledged the revolving door of backup tight ends that the Patriots ran through before Bennett excelled in the role. But he sees Bennett following the money in free agency, which will not be the highest in New England.

“Bennett wants to go to the highest bidder, so it’s probably not going to be the Patriots,” said Howe. “Gronk’s on the books for three years and $24 million over the remainder of his contract. There’s no way they’re going to approach $8 million plus for Bennett, because they’re not going to disrupt the hierarchy of the depth chart.”

Despite the tough decisions the Patriots face as to who they will pay this offseason, they do have over $60 million in cap space to work with. Howe said that it’s no coincidence that Belichick left himself with plenty of room to sign multiple deals, which could also include extensions for Tom Brady and Malcolm Butler.

“[Belichick] plans for these things. He plans better than anybody in the NFL one, two, three years in advance for how he wants to build his team,” said Howe. “So it should not be a coincidence that [the Patriots] have $60 million in cap space or spending money this offseason when they’ve also got their best free agent class, outgoing, in years. So they’ve got to put that money to use.”

Listen to the full podcast below:


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