By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Even if Dont’a Hightower does end up leaving the Patriots and signing with a new team, it won’t go down the way you expected.
The Patriots’ defensive captain was considered one of the best players to hit the unrestricted free agent market, potentially a big-name signing on day one. Yet not only did Hightower fail to find a deal in the opening hours of free agency in the range that he desired – a reported $10-13 million – he’s still on the market as of Monday, visiting teams like the Jets and Steelers in hopes of landing the deal he initially hoped to get.
Hightower is still expected to ultimately return to the Patriots for about $10 million per season, despite visiting the Steelers and Jets this week. If the Steelers or Jets decide to swoop in at the 11th hour and offer Hightower a deal with an AAV closer to $13 million, it would amount to an overpayment at this point.
If teams won’t spend more than $10 million per season for Hightower’s services, that makes his potential decision to stay in New England that much easier. In retrospect, the Patriots were right to wait it out and not act too hastily in giving Hightower an extension.
So how did Hightower – and most people covering him – get his market so wrong?
For one, it’s possible that teams around the league (including the Patriots) are holding Hightower’s injury history against him. He has consistently struggled to stay on the field in recent seasons and it’s been a rather underreported aspect of his quest to land the most lucrative contract possible.
Hightower is one of the league’s best middle linebackers when he is on the field, but he has also missed 11 games in the past three seasons. Although Hightower has avoided missing significant time due to injury, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder after the end of the 2014 season.
Here’s a quick look at Hightower’s history of injuries with the Patriots:
- Missed two games during the 2014 season with a knee injury
- Missed two games down the stretch of the 2014 season with a shoulder injury
- Missed three games during the 2015 season to nurse a sprained MCL in his left knee
- Missed two games early in the 2016 season due to a slight meniscus tear
- Sat out final game of 2016 season to nurse a shoulder injury
Of course, Hightower played through all of these injuries at some point. He has yet to miss a playoff game in his career, recording at least two tackles in all of them. Nobody’s doubting Hightower’s toughness. But it’s his durability that’s the issue; it appears that no team is willing to pay top-of-the-market money for a player who can be penciled in to miss a few games and/or nurse an injury every season.
There is also a much simpler, broader reason why the market for Hightower and others is so thin: there’s just not as much money out there for players who make a bigger impact in the running game than the passing game. Jason La Canfora expounded on this theory when he joined Toucher & Rich on Monday.
Yes, Hightower is primarily used as a run-stopping middle linebacker and he’s one of the better players in the league at that role. But he’s also excelled when put in spots to get to the quarterback, despite having limited snaps as a pass rusher. His 76.4 pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus ranked second in the NFL last season among all linebackers, behind only the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner. He showed flashes of his game-changing upside as a pass rusher when he stripped the ball from Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl and forced a safety in two straight games.
Yet despite his game-changing strip sack that helped spur the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback, Hightower is still viewed as a run-stopping linebacker and the market for those players simply isn’t as big as it is for players who consistently affect the passing game. It’s why a cornerback like Stephon Gilmore or pass rusher like Chandler Jones can command $13-16 million per season, while traditional run-stoppers like Hightower and Dontari Poe remain on the market.
Wherever Hightower ends up signing next season, it will be with a team that entered a market that wasn’t as pricey as the linebacker had hoped. Both his injury history and skill set ostensibly played a role in Hightower’s relative lack of a market. But of course, it appears that the Patriots are the ones who got it right.
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 email@example.com.