The Patriots have their work cut out for them this offseason, with 13 unrestricted free agents set to hit the market, and 10 of those having made a significant impact on the team this year.
That doesn’t even include restricted free agents like Malcolm Butler and Cameron Fleming, who shouldn’t be big problems this offseason, but still require attention.
The point is, the Patriots have a lot of decisions to make, and their top priority should be retaining Dont’a Hightower
Over the last five years, Hightower has developed into a every down star at inside linebacker.
While other star players like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins left this past season, the defense did nothing but improve, finishing as the league’s #1 scoring defense. No player was more crucial to this improvement than Hightower, who anchored a defense that ranked third against the rush, without allowing a single 100-yard rusher.
A two-time Super Bowl hero, Hightower has shone brightest in the biggest moments, registering a strip-sack that was crucial to the Patriots’ 25-point comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, while also bringing down Marshawn Lynch inside the 1 yard line in Super Bowl XLIX, keeping the Patriots alive for one more play, which, of course was the legendary Malcolm Butler Interception. Without Hightower, the Patriots might not have a Super Bowl Championship since Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005.
The Patriots, due to moves like trading Collins and Jones, have an extraordinary amount of cap space for a Super Bowl winning team, and certainly have the funds to bring Hightower back for the prime of his career, but with the Patriots’ exceptional amount of lower cost defensive free agents, coupled with Bill Belichick’s famed unwillingness to overpay defensive stars, this is no sure thing.
With the amount of free agents, the Patriots have this offseason, it is a near certainty that not all of them are coming back.
Logan Ryan, the team’s ball hawking number two cornerback and leading tackler, is a candidate to be overpaid by another team in a league where quality corners are being paid more than ever.
While Ryan has turned into one of the better complimentary corner backs in the league, players like Eric Rowe and 2016 second round pick Cyrus Jones can step in and fill the void.
TE Martellus Bennett and DE Jabaal Sheard are also high priced free agents the Patriots could let go of. While it would certainly hurt the team, all of those players are, to an extent, replaceable.
Hightower is one-of-a-kind, and though other LBs Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy have been productive, none have shown the game-changing individual dominance than Hightower possesses. The Patriots cannot afford to let such a special player walk, especially with Tom Brady entering next season a 40-year-old.
While yes, Brady is arguably as good as he’s ever been, finishing second in MVP voting while only playing in 12 games, there is only so long he can keep this up, right? Brady may be able to carry a championship team now, but as the years go on, Brady is going to need to rely on his defense more and more often.
With the current uncertainty behind Brady at quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo is a strong candidate to be traded this offseason), the Patriots need to focus on building a strong defensive core more than ever, starting with Hightower.
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