Throughout the offseason, the second most popular storyline surrounding the New England Patriots involved the pending free agency of their young linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins.
Both have grown into leading roles in the past few seasons and now as their rookie deals expire, they are in essence playing for their future earnings. Thus far, the results have been relatively mixed for both players with flashes of impressive play mixed in with some of the same old issues coming to the surface.
Hightower was drafted four picks after the already departed Chandler Jones and is currently playing under the fifth year option which is paying him $7.751million (per Patscap.com). The
undisputed leader of the defense, Hightower took over as the middle linebacker from Jerod Mayo in each of the last three seasons when he was lost to injury. This time it is his unit from the outset and he is vital to the run defense especially with his ability to fill gaps and be in the right place at the right time.
Throughout his career, the one issue with Hightower is that he always tends to miss time with some sort of injury. That has come up already with Hightower missing the Miami and Houston games with a knee injury. When he came back against the Bills the lasting image from that game is Tyrod Taylor leaving him on his backside as he tried to contain a run out to his side. Aside from 2013, Hightower has missed multiple games which is going to cause some concern about giving him a big money deal. While the availability issue can be offset with a 46 man active roster bonus in whatever extension he may sign, it cannot be going down well with Bill Belichick to have him already missing games.
Collins on the other hand was a second round pick in 2013 whose athleticism has drawn rave reviews throughout his career. Former NFL executive Michael Lombardi said in a radio interview that the feeling in the building about Collins was that he would be as good of a linebacker as he would allow himself to be. Reading into that analysis suggests that there may be questions about how motivated Collins is from time to time. As impressive as his career highlights are, there are a number of frustrating plays on tape from him as well, most notably allowing what was left of Owen Daniels to catch two touchdowns in last season’s AFC Championship.
Fans have seen the best and worst of Collins this year as well, against Houston he was a force as he helped cover for Hightower’s absence and was all over the field making plays as needed. It was a nice bounce back a week after he strolled through a second half defensive collapse against Miami. Finding a player with the size and athleticism that Collins possesses is rare, which is why the Patriots would like to keep him around. It also boosts his value should he ever hit the open market. As has happened with many players, including ones that the Patriots have signed, a big money deal is signed and the player’s effort declines. That would certainly be a big concern with Collins who has shown that he will take plays or even games off at times on a rookie deal. At the end of the day there is no clear remedy in a contract to offset the potential loss of effort and it will simply come down to whether or not the Patriots want to risk losing him to a rival team.
While there are still several months to go before either player hits the open market, fans have gotten evidence to make a case for and against re-signing Collins and Hightower. With their teammate Malcolm Butler another player that is grossly underpaid, the question becomes how the team will choose to allocate their resources among their young defensive core.