Take a good look at this year's Patriots linebacker corps, folks, because it could be the last season you see a couple of key members on it.
Of course, it's hard to believe anybody in the Patriots organization will let that be the case. And certainly it would be a nightmare for Patriots fans.
But the bottom line is both Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will hit free agency next season, and based on what we've seen from both of them in their respective careers, they'll be commanding some serious dough on the market.
If Collins and Hightower can stay healthy and continue to trend in the right direction, an annual average salary north of $9 million each certainly isn't out of the question.
Those two aren't the only important Patriots playing the final year of their deals. Jabaal Sheard will join them on the unrestricted free agent market, as will Rob Ninkovich and Chris Long. Malcolm Butler will become a restricted free agent. Tough decisions will have to be made.
Collins' athleticism is up there with the best of them, and it's obvious how much more dangerous the defense is with him on the field.
Hightower mans the middle and appears to have the leadership and smarts like former Patriots captain Jerod Mayo, who was extremely effective for the Patriots before retiring last season as injuries caught up to him. Hightower, too, has dealt with his share of injuries, so a healthy season is of the utmost importance to him.
The Patriots' defense is going to get them through the first four games without Tom Brady, and Collins and Hightower will have a big say in that.
Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo
The front office has been busy with this group. Just a few days ago the team extended Freeny to a two-year extension. Days before that, the Patriots traded a fifth-round pick to the Browns for Mingo. They signed McClellin over the offseason. It’s all part of a revamped unit that looks to do some serious damage. Mingo and McClellin are hybrids, able to play both defensive end and outside linebacker depending on the situation.
The trade for Mingo could look like another genius move by Belichick and his staff. The former Brown was the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has 108 tackles over his three-year career, missing just one game. His role was reduced last season and his fifth-year option was not picked up by the Browns, which makes him another Patriots free agent after this season.
Even so, Mingo’s experience in pass coverage and usage on special teams makes him a nice grab, and he reportedly put on 25 pounds of muscle over the offseason. He’s a welcomed addition to the team, and is getting acclimated to his new surroundings.
“It’s a huge culture shock,” Mingo told reporters on Monday. “I felt like the winning spirit was making its way into Cleveland with those new coaches, but it’s definitely been established here for a long time. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Rufus Johnson, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Elandon Roberts, Kevin Snyder