New England Patriots: Ranking Internal Free Agent Priorities

Feb 6, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick speaks during the Super Bowl LI winning team press conference flanked by the Lombardi Trophy at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 6, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick speaks during the Super Bowl LI winning team press conference flanked by the Lombardi Trophy at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /
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Dont’a Hightower:

New England Patriots
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower (54) knocks a pass out of the hands of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the fourth quarter during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

Hightower’s position in this lofty place seems to be getting shakier each day as free agency approaches. His sack/forced fumble in the Super Bowl was probably the biggest play made by the defense. Of course, a huge play on a huge stage often leads to a huge payday.

His ability to stop the run, blitz efficiently and effectively, and strong play in the passing game makes him special as a oversized inside linebacker with the mobility and quickness of his lighter counterparts.  He has the size, strength, and agility to be a three-down linebacker in a league full of specialists.

Hightower’s high profile after the trading of Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones likely makes him more attractive to opposing teams. With Collins re-signed by the Cleveland Browns and the Arizona Cardinals indicating they will use the franchise tag on Chandler Jones if unable to ink him to a long-term deal, the Patriots will have a hard time keeping other teams from targeting their top free agent.

The Patriots do not like using the franchise tag due to the risk of the high one-year salary cap-busting nature of the guaranteed money. The last time using the franchise tag was on kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski was the third time the franchise used it on a kicker having twice tagged Adam Vinatieri.

Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, and Wes Welker all were franchise tagged by the Patriots and all four had contentious salary negotiations. They did not use it on Devin McCourty and nearly lost the free safety as he chose to take a discount to stay in New England. They run the same risk of losing Hightower if they do not use the tag. If it gets down to the wire, expect New England to use the transition tag to at least give themselves the right of first refusal.

Forget the dollars and statistics with Hightower–he is a Belichick guy. He has played five seasons in New England and has been to the AFC Championship game in every season. He has played hurt and his tackle of Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl 49 was the most underrated play of the game.

Hightower’s only negative has been the injuries. He is a captain. He is a leader. He is a Patriot. Of course, none of that matters if someone is offering a salary similar to what Jamie Collins got from Cleveland (4-years $50 million) or more. His stature as a leader on the defense and loyalty to Belichick may keep him in New England–but he will not be taking any significant home-town discounts.

Malcolm Butler:

New England Patriots
Aug 18, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) walks off the field after defeating the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Malcolm Butler is in a strange situation as a restricted free agent. He has been one of the best bargains in the NFL providing number one cornerback play for less than what top cornerbacks get paid in a single game. He is one of the best bargains in the game and now he is coming up on a long overdue payday.

As a restricted free agent, the Patriots almost have to tender Butler at the first-round level. It will cost them about $3.9 million to retain Butler for 2017–still a ridiculous bargain. If a team signs Butler to an offer-sheet, the Patriots would then have the right to match the offer and keep Butler.

For Bill Belichick, this may be the best option (and why Hightower may end up with the transition tag). He has at minimum a first-round draft pick for compensation if he loses the free agent. If the deal is not oppressive, Belichick can sign his man without doing any of the negotiating (no hurt feelings). That may be a win-win.

If the deal is completely out of left field, the Patriots let him walk and pick-up a first round draft pick this spring in compensation. While it may hurt the team in 2017 (and put a lot of pressure on 2016 second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones to contribute immediately), another first-round draft pick is almost unfair to give to the Super Bowl champions.

The most likely scenario is that Butler is tendered at the first-round level and no other team makes an offer. Butler stays and has another Pro Bowl caliber season in New England and puts the team in a tough situation next offseason as they decide whether to use the franchise tag. New England should be safe to keep Butler for another season for less than his value.

Martellus Bennett:

New England Patriots
Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Deji Olatoye (30) during Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Bennett has made no secret of his twin desires since joining the Patriots via trade: He wants to get paid top dollar. He also enjoys playing in a winning environment. Of course, with New England’s record of not overpaying non-homegrown talent, they may not be able to let Bennett meet both of these wishes.

Bennett’s age and eccentricity are the only things keeping him from the “going to cost too much to keep” category. He gutted out 2016 playing injured much of the season. But he is 30 years old and his off-field eccentricities could keep team from giving him what he wants on the open market.

Bennett fulfilled his role of “Gronk Insurance” in 2016 but the offense never really was able to have both tight ends healthy and in the offense together. On one hand, the Patriots still have unfinished business with their two-tight end offense. On the other other hand, how much money can they sink into the position where both players had injury issues?

Bennett may be in a position to get close to what he wants monetarily with New England and stay in a situation which is tailor made for him. He had 55 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns this season (all stats from unless otherwise noted). He can be himself and play second banana to the All-Pro Rob Gronkowski and get paid close to top-level starter money. The Super Bowl win may be enough to make up his mind.

Bennett gives the offense a weapon hard to find on the open market. He likes it in New England and the Patriots like his fit on offense. Whether they can make the money work is another issue altogether. Bennett is the top priority on offense, and the team has a good chance of making a deal that works for both sides.