BOSTON (CBS) — The 2016 season hasn’t even started, and many Patriots fans are already fretting about the 2017 offseason.

That’s when the Patriots will have a handful of key players hitting the free agent market, highlighted by linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower and corner Malcolm Butler. Collins and Hightower will both be unrestricted free agents, while Butler will be restricted.

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Butler made headlines for missing OTAs a few weeks ago, a sign that some saw as the corner telling the team he wants a new deal. ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss joined Steve Burton on WBZ-TV’s Sports Final on Sunday night, and said this is usually the time of the year the Patriots explore locking up future free agents to long-term deals.

“Usually players who are interested in sparking up the discussion go to Bill Belichick, and he says to them most often ‘we’ll talk after the draft.’ The Patriots drafted a corner, Cyrus Jones, and that obviously grabbed Butler’s attention,” said Reiss. “He would like to see this addressed. Whether the sides can find a middle ground, that remains to be seen. It’s something we have to watch going forward.”

Reiss notes that Butler is vastly underpaid at his position at just $600,000 for next season, but the team holds all the leverage.

“They don’t have to do it, and they have the leverage. We’ve seen them in the past use that leverage. They had leverage on Devin McCourty, offered him something that wasn’t enough, he went to free agency and they had to pay him a little more than they thought they would. But they’re willing to wait and be patient,” said Reiss. “They’re not the type of team that lets someone hold their feet to the fire.”

Reiss wouldn’t be surprised if the team decides to lock up Collins sooner rather than later, because simply put, there is no one else like Collins in the NFL.

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“This is interesting. There is not a lot of people in the league like Jamie Collins. You could make the case to pay him Luke Kuechly type money, and that’s a lot. That’s five years and north of $60 million. That’s why I think for the Patriots, doing it now might be smart,” said Reiss. “He’s entering the last year of his deal and is making just under a million. If you do the deal now you can keep the figure from this year, and add it on – start the deal in 2017. From the team side, you can get ahead of the contract.

“The way they’d do that is give him the deal now, upfront money, but start the meat of the deal next year,” Reiss added. “They’ve done it in the past with guys like [Rob] Gronkowski, and I wonder if they’ll do it with Collins. If you lose him, there aren’t really any more Collinses out there.”

Reiss said that Hightower, who is set to make $7.7 million next season, is in no rush to sign an extension at the time.

“He’s not necessarily motivated to sign something unless it’s big money. But the Patriots might like it because they can lower his cap number. He may not be the same as Collins on the athletic standpoint, but he has that toughness that you like,” Reiss said of the linebacker.

Watch the full discussion with Reiss in the video above, and tune in to Sports Final and Sports Final OT every Sunday night at 11:35pm on WBZ-TV!

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98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zo & Bertrand discuss New England’s upcoming free agents: