The Patriots could easily still be stuck on three Super Bowl titles if it wasn’t for linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Hightower’s fourth quarter strip sack of Falcons QB Matt Ryan altered the course of Super Bowl LI last month and his tackle of then-Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line with just over a minute remaining in Super Bowl XLIX helped save that game for New England two years ago.
But Bill Belichick does not pay for past performance, and Hightower is looking to make some big dollars this offseason. The Patriots did not use their franchise tag on Hightower Tuesday, despite some speculation suggesting otherwise, and the 26-year-old will now test free agency.
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“I think that (the Patriots) still will try to re-sign him and try to bring him back,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter said on the network’s NFL Live program Tuesday. “A lot of teams view the franchise tag as a weapon, and the Patriots are not interested in doing that, I don’t believe. They’d just like to bring back Dont’a Hightower and see if they can work out a deal, and if they can great for them and the player, and if not – the player will move on to greener pastures, literally and figuratively.”
Belichick consistently sang Hightower’s praises before and after this year’s Super Bowl.
“He’s a great football player,” Belichick told ESPN after the comeback over Atlanta. “He’s smart, he’s tough, he gives us good leadership and a lot of communication.”
Belichick rarely goes all lovey dovey about players in his talks with the media, but his glowing remarks about Hightower have been non-stop for a while now. Belichick took a similar approach with former cornerback Aqib Talib before he hit free agency and it sure seemed like the Patriots wanted to keep the player in earnest. The Broncos, however, broke the bank to sign Talib (six years, $57 million in 2014).
It remains to be seen if a team will seemingly overspend for Hightower’s services.
NFL free agency begins on March 9.