Dont’a Hightower

Latest Between Dont’a Hightower, Patriots

A new deal between the Patriots and free agent linebacker Dont’a Hightower is “not imminent,” reports Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald (all Twitter links). New England could employ the franchise or transition tag on Hightower before Wednesday’s deadline, but it’s unclear whether the club will use that option. If they do, it could be a sign the two sides are nearing an extension that would supersede the tag, per Howe.Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)

[RELATED: Patriots Unlikely To Retain Martellus Bennett?]

Hightower has indicated a willingness to sign the franchise tag, which would pay him roughly $14.7MM for the 2017 campaign. But the Patriots are also reportedly considering deploying the transition tag, which will cost less but also wouldn’t entitle New England to draft pick compensation if Hightower signs elsewhere. The Patriots have plenty of cap space, however, and would likely be able to match any offer Hightower scores on the open market.

Hightower, 26, played in 13 games last season and racked up 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 12th-best linebacker among 87 qualifiers. Given that the Patriots have already traded away other key defenders such as Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, Hightower may be the last man standing when New England decides where to spend its free agent dollars.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Top 2017 Free Agents By Position: Defense

NFL free agency will get underway on Thursday, March 9th, and while the list of free agents will change between now and then, we do have some idea of who will be available when free agency kicks off. The frenzy is right around the corner and it’s time for us to break down the outlook for each position. After looking at offense, we’ll tackle defense and special teams today.

[RELATED: Top 2017 NFL Free Agents By Position: Offense]

Listed below are our rankings for the top 15 free agents at each defensive position. These rankings aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the contracts – or the amount of guaranteed money – that each player is expected to land in free agency. These are simply the players we like the most at each position, with both short- and long-term value taken into account.

Restricted and exclusive-rights free agents, as well as players who received the franchise tag, aren’t listed here, since the roadblocks in place to hinder another team from actually acquiring most of those players prevent them from being true free agents.

We’ll almost certainly be higher or lower on some free agents than you are, so feel free to weigh in below in our comments section to let us know which players we’ve got wrong.

Here’s our breakdown of the current top 15 free agents by defensive position for 2017:

Edge defender:

  1. Chandler Jones
  2. Melvin Ingram
  3. Jason Pierre-Paul
  4. Nick Perry
  5. Jabaal Sheard
  6. James Harrison
  7. John Simon
  8. DeMarcus Ware
  9. Lorenzo Alexander
  10. Andre Branch
  11. Julius Peppers
  12. Charles Johnson
  13. Datone Jones
  14. Mario Addison
  15. Dwight Freeney

The Cardinals have already made it abundantly clear that Chandler Jones will see the franchise tag this offseason, and Melvin Ingram and Jason Pierre-Paul are also candidates to be tagged by the Chargers and Giants, respectively. If the latter two are able to hit the open market unfettered, however, they both figure to break the bank. Ingram, Pro Football Focus’ No. 6 edge defender, could be a fit for both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, while JPP will be looking for a long-term commitment after signing consecutive one-year deals.Chandler Jones (vertical)

The rest of this year’s crop of free agent pass rushers is a blend of young defenders searching for their first payday and veterans on the hunt for one last contract. Among the players with youth still on their side, Packers edge defenders Nick Perry and Datone Jones figure to interest different clubs, as Perry is a better match for a 3-4 defense while Jones needs to restart his career as a 4-3 defensive end. John Simon has been overlooked while playing alongside the likes of J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus but could represent a hidden gem, while the Dolphins are reportedly prioritizing Andre Branch.

After managing nine sacks over the first nine years of his NFL tenure, Lorenzo Alexander busted out with 12.5 quarterback takedowns in 2016, and now could be looking for a double-digit annual salary. James Harrison and Charles Johnson, meanwhile, look like good bets to return to Steelers and Panthers, respectively, but DeMarcus Ware could be something of a wild card — after missing 11 games in the past two seasons, does the 34-year-old have enough left in the tank? The same could be asked of Dwight Freeney, who at age-37 posted three sacks in a rotational role for the Falcons.

Interior defensive line:

  1. Kawann Short
  2. Calais Campbell
  3. Johnathan Hankins
  4. Brandon Williams
  5. Dontari Poe
  6. Chris Baker
  7. Bennie Logan
  8. Nick Fairley
  9. Alan Branch
  10. Jared Odrick
  11. Karl Klug
  12. Terrell McClain
  13. Lawrence Guy
  14. Earl Mitchell
  15. Stacy McGee

Unlike the edge defender market, the 2017 cadre of interior defensive lineman shouldn’t be overly affected by the franchise tender. Head coach Ron Rivera recently confessed the Panthers will “probably” have to use the tag on Kawann Short, but the rest of the defensive tackles listed here should be able to hit the open market. Of the remaining defenders, Campbell is the best overall player, but given that he’s entering his age-31 season, he may not cost as much as Johnathan Hankins, Brandon Williams, and Dontari Poe.Johnathan Hankins (Vertical)

Hankins is only 24 years old, and though the Giants are trying to retain him along with the rest of their defensive core, the 6’3″, 320-pound mauler should represent an attractive option to a number of clubs this offseason. Williams, too, offers a massive presence on the inside, while Poe could intrigue clubs based on his first-round pedigree and athleticism (though his play hasn’t always matched his potential). The Redskins’ Chris Baker is a solid, well-rounded defensive tackle, and could constitute a consolation prize for teams that miss out on their top targets.

The rest of the class offers an interesting mix of nose tackles (Bennie Logan), interior pass rushers (Nick Fairley, Earl Mitchell), and run stoppers (Karl Klug, Alan Branch), so clubs hoping to bolster their defensive line should find no shortage of options. Jared Odrick recently hit free agency after being released by the Jaguars, while Terrell McClain, Lawrence Guy, and Stacy McGee could be underrated finds for the right team. McClain, for what it’s worth, has already been linked to the Falcons.

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Pats May Transition Tag Dont’a Hightower

The Patriots could use the transition tag on pending free agent linebacker Dont’a Hightower instead of offering him the franchise tender, according to Ian Rapoport of (Twitter link).Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)

[RELATED: Patriots Unlikely To Retain Martellus Bennett?]

Hightower has expressed a willingness to sign the franchise tag, but he’s said nothing about the transition tender, which will likely be about $3MM less expensive. While the franchise figure for linebackers could approach $15MM, the transition number should reside closer to $12MM, leading Mike Reiss of to earlier this week guess New England could instead deploy the transition tag.

The non-exclusive franchise tag amount is determined by a formula that includes the salary cap figures and the non-exclusive franchise salaries at the player’s position for the previous five years. Alternatively, the transition tag figure is the average of the top 10 highest-paid players at the player’s position in the previous league year, so it’s cheaper than the franchise number. Only one club — the Dolphins — used the transition tender in 2016, but soon revoked it after originally placing it on defensive end Olivier Vernon.

If the Patriots assign the transition tag to Hightower, he could negotiate with other clubs, but the Patriots would retain the right to match any offer sheet. Unlike the franchise tag, however, the transition tender wouldn’t entitle New England to any draft compensation if it chose not to match a contract offer. The Patriots currently have the sixth-most cap space in the NFL, though, so they should be able to match even the most creative of offer sheets.

Hightower, 26, played in 13 games last season and racked up 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 12th-best linebacker among 87 qualifiers. Given that the Patriots have already traded away other key defenders such as Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones, Hightower may be the last man standing when New England decides where to spend its free agent dollars.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

East Notes: D-Jax, Jets, Hightower

We recently heard that Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency this offseason, could command an annual salary of at least $10MM on his next contract, despite the fact that he is a 30-year-old receiver whose game is predicated on speed. Today, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk lends more support to those rumblings, reporting that Jackson will be generating strong interest as free agency approaches. Of course, Jackson has expressed interest in re-signing with Washington and in returning to Philadelphia, but he would likely have to take a lesser salary to stay with the Redskins and he seems to be a little resentful about the way things ended with the Eagles. But as Florio observes, it seems as if Jackson’s choice will not be limited to two clubs.

Now for more from the league’s east divisions:

  • Regardless of what the Jets choose to do with Darrelle Revis, Rich Cimini of reports that the team is exploring the upper end of the free agent cornerback market and could make a quick splash once free agency opens. A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Trumaine Johnson and Logan Ryan are all options for Gang Green.
  • If the Patriots use a tag on impending free agent Dont’a Hightower, Mike Reiss of believes it will be the $11MM transition tag rather than the $14.5-15MM franchise tag. The transition tag allows New England the right of first refusal on any offer Hightower receives in free agency, although it does not allow the Pats to recoup any draft pick compensation if they choose to not match such an offer.
  • In the same piece, Reiss reports that Patriots receiver Danny Amendola will not be back on his current contract, which is scheduled to pay him $6MM in 2017. However, Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk writes that New England values what Amendola can contribute on offense and on special teams, so the club would like him to have him back at a reduced salary. Given that Amendola has agreed to a restructure in each of the last two offseasons, and given that he posted only 23 catches for 243 yards in 2016, it seems likely that the two sides will be able to work something out.
  • In his latest chat with fans, Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News says that he expects the Cowboys to select a defensive end with one of their first two picks in this year’s draft. The 2017 class has a fair amount of talent at the edge rushing positions, so Dallas should be able to land a quality prospect even though they are picking near the end of each round.
  • Yesterday, the Dolphins inked defensive end Cameron Wake to an extension that will keep him in Miami through 2018.

2017 NFL Franchise Tag Candidates


Starting today, NFL teams will be able to place franchise and transition tags on potential free agents for the first time. While the window for franchise tags is open, most clubs won’t actually tag any players right away.

As our list of important dates for the 2017 offseason shows, the deadline for teams to assign those tags doesn’t come until Wednesday, March 1st. Usually, when it comes to NFL contract discussions, deadlines spur action, so teams will wait until that deadline approaches to officially use franchise tags, once it becomes clear that they won’t be able to strike a longer-term deal yet with their respective free-agents-to-be.

Even though the action might not heat up for a couple more weeks, it’s worth taking a closer look at what to expect during 2017’s franchise tag period. The NFL hasn’t officially announced the salary cap figure for 2017, but former agent Joel Corry of recently projected the 2017 franchise tag salaries based on a presumed $168MM cap. Here are the expected non-exclusive franchise tag amounts:

  • Quarterback: $21.395MM
  • Running back: $12.377MM
  • Wide receiver: $15.826MM
  • Tight end: $9.894MM
  • Offensive line: $14.444MM
  • Defensive end: $16.955MM
  • Defensive tackle: $13.468MM
  • Linebacker: $14.754MM
  • Cornerback: $14.297MM
  • Safety: $10.961MM
  • Punter/kicker: $4.863MM

(For a refresher on the characteristics of the exclusive and non-exclusive franchise tags, as well as the transition tag, be sure to check out PFR’s glossary entry on the subject.)

Here’s our look at the most likely candidates to be tagged, along with several more outside possibilities:

Virtual Locks:

Chandler Jones, DE, Cardinals: Maybe Jones should headline a category titled “Super Duper Virtual Locks.” In January, coach Bruce "<strongArians said that the Cards would apply the franchise tag to Jones if they were unable to immediately lock him up to a long-term deal. Then, just this week, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill offered additional confirmation of that plan. The $16.955MM tag will be applied to Jones in the next couple of weeks and the two sides will then have until the summer to work out a long-term deal. The odds of a longer pact coming together seem pretty good, considering the Cardinals knew what they were getting themselves into when they traded for Jones last year.

Kawann Short, DT, Panthers: Panthers head coach Ron Rivera admits that Short will “probably” be tagged and, unlike ex-teammate Josh Norman, Short doesn’t have a problem with it. The 28-year-old was the third-best defensive tackle in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus, and the Panthers will gladly pay him ~$13.5MM on a one-year deal. A multi-year agreement could require an average annual value of $17MM, so our early guess is that Short will wind up actually playing on the tender.

Le’Veon Bell
, RB, Steelers: We’ve known for a while now that the Steelers will use the franchise tag on Bell. For all of his off-the-field headaches, Bell still stands as one of the league’s most dynamic running backs and a one-year, $12.3MM deal would suit Pittsburgh just fine. Sometime after the tag is in place, we’re expecting the two sides to agree on a long-term deal. As I wrote in our most recent edition of the Free Agent Power Rankings, Bell will top LeSean McCoy‘s ~$8MM AAV and Doug Martin‘s $15MM in guarantees on a new multiyear pact. Of course, other factors such as cash flow will be pivotal in talks, particularly given the limited shelf life of running backs.
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Dont’a Hightower Open To Franchise Tag

Fresh off winning their fifth Super Bowl title, the Patriots have decisions to make on a cavalcade of pending free agents before the market opens March 9. The best of the bunch is likely star linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who implied Wednesday that he’ll be amenable to playing next season as the Patriots’ franchise player if they’re unable to reach a long-term deal, per Mike Reiss of (Twitter links).

Dont'a Hightower

“That’s a lot of money,” Hightower told ESPN’s Wendi Nix regarding the possibility of the Patriots tagging him.

If New England does designate Hightower as its franchise player, it’s likely to cost the club in the neighborhood of $14.754MM. That might be the route the Patriots have to take, too, as Hightower rejected a contract extension worth more than $10MM per year prior to the season, reports Ian Rapoport of (Twitter link). Now the Patriots might have to fork over a deal in the five-year, $60MM range with $30MM in guarantees, contends Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald (via Twitter). That would be similar to the pact ex-teammate and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins inked last month with the Browns, who handed him $50MM ($26MM guaranteed) over four years.

Hightower, a five-year veteran who will turn 27 next month, has been working toward a mega-deal since entering the NFL as the 25th overall pick in 2012. The ex-Alabama standout has started in 64 of 67 regular-season appearances and amassed 17 sacks along the way. He was also hugely instrumental in the Patriots’ shocking Super Bowl LI victory over the Falcons on Sunday, when his fourth-quarter strip sack of quarterback Matt Ryan proved crucial in helping the Patriots to erase what was then a 16-point deficit en route to an overtime win.

Going forward, one concern with Hightower is that he has missed at least two games in four seasons (2013 was his only 16-game campaign), including three in 2016 as he dealt with knee and shoulder problems. Still, he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 12th-best linebacker among 87 qualifiers last year and won’t need to undergo knee or shoulder surgery this offseason, tweets Howe.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

PFR’s 2017 Free Agent Power Rankings 2.0

For 30 of the NFL’s 32 teams, the offseason is already underway. Here is the latest installment of our 2017 NFL Free Agent Power Rankings, which is comprised only of upcoming unrestricted free agents, and is ranked by projected guaranteed money. In parentheses next to each player, you’ll find their position in the early January edition of the rankings. For more, check out our master list of all 2017 free agents.

Free Agent Power Rankings 2 (vertical)

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (1): Cousins may not be the best player on this list, but he will come away with the most guaranteed money of any free agent this offseason. Quarterbacks are perpetually in high demand and short supply and as a result Cousins could become one of the league’s three highest paid signal callers. Because Washington has already used the franchise tag on Cousins, a repeat would cost them a whopping $23.94MM for 2017. The belief is that Cousins is seeking that $23.94MM number as an AAV goal. There has been talk of the Redskins shopping their star QB, but the team has since publicly stated its intention of locking him up to a long-term dealKirk Cousins (vertical)

2. Chandler Jones, LB/DE (2): Jones has been an absolute stud ever since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2012. If we go by the numbers at Pro Football Focus, 2016 was actually Jones’ best year to date. This past season, he finished out with a strong 87.4 overall score, tying him for seventh amongst all edge rushers with Houston’s Whitney Mercilus. In the previous four seasons with New England, Jones averaged a 79.38 on PFF. Every team could use a sack machine like Jones, but coach Bruce Arians says the Cardinals will place the franchise tag on him if they cannot agree on a long-term deal. He’s technically ticketed for unrestricted free agency, but it doesn’t sound like Jones is going anywhere.

3. Kawann Short, DT (3): Unlike former teammate Josh Norman, Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short says he won’t have any problem signing the franchise tender if the team tags him. “I wouldn’t fight it or anything,” said Short in early January. In 2016, he turned in his fourth straight 16-game season and ranked as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best interior defender. Short, 28 this week, also had six sacks on the year. I think the Panthers would be wise to hit Short with the ~$13.468MM franchise tag or sign him to a long-term deal, but there is at least a non-trivial chance of him reaching the open market.

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Extra Points: Colts, Bills, Hightower, Beasley

Broncos quarterbacks struggled during the 2016 campaign, leading some to wonder if the team could pursue a veteran option this offseason. That thought has apparently crossed receiver Emmanuel Sanders‘ mind, as the wideout said he’d certainly benefit if the squad acquired Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

“I believe I would benefit,” Sanders said (via Josh Alper of “But one thing about it is: I’m always gonna take it back and I’m just gonna put it on John Elway. In John Elway I trust. If he does bring him over, I think Tony Romo will fit good in [Mike] McCoy’s system. It’s a no-huddle, up-tempo offense. I think that it’s gonna be similar to the Cowboys. I think he has Demaryius Thomas and some receiver No. 10 on the other side. I feel like we will win ballgames with Tony Romo or potentially a championship. At the same time, Paxton Lynch played in a spread offense at Memphis and he can be successful. I think Trevor can be successful. We’ll see what we do. I can’t sit up here and say ‘Bring Tony Romo!’ because I also have two other quarterbacks that are playing really well too.”

During his introductory press conference, Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said Trevor Siemian and Lynch would compete for the starting quarterback gig.

Let’s check out some more notes from around the NFL as we wrap up this Monday evening…

  • Colts owner Jim Irsay will be hiring the team’s new general manager on his own, reports Mike Florio of Since Irsay won’t be relying on other team officials, Florio believes Irsay will lean towards promoting executive Jimmy Raye III. The writer cites the owner’s familiarity with Raye, as well as the executive’s supposed willingness to stick with head coach Chuck Pagano.
  • The Bills have hired Chiefs assistant head coach/wide receivers coach David Culley as their new quarterbacks coach, reports Alex Marvez of The Sporting News (via Twitter). Culley spent more than a decade with the Eagles before joining Andy Reid and the Chiefs in 2013. We heard earlier tonight that the Chiefs had hired former Eagles wide receivers coach Greg Lewis for the same position.
  • Browns linebacker Jamie Collins received a four-year, $50MM extension earlier today.’s Joel Corry believes the contract should serve as a “floor” for Collins former teammate, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower (Twitter link). Corry notes that the Patriots will have a tough time convincing Hightower’s agent that the linebacker deserves less than the player they traded away.
  • Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley was close to being traded or cut during training camp, reports Gil Brandt of (via Twitter). The fear of being let go apparently motivated the former first-rounder, as Beasley finished the season with 39 tackles, 15.5 sacks, and six forced fumbles.

PFR’s 2017 Free Agent Power Rankings

The regular season is over and, for most teams, the offseason is underway. Here is the latest installment of our 2017 NFL Free Agent Power Rankings, which is comprised only of upcoming unrestricted free agents, and is ranked by projected guaranteed money. In parentheses next to each player, you’ll find their position in the November edition of the rankings. For more, check out our master list of all 2017 free agents.

2017 Free Agent Power Rankings With Text (vertical)

1. Kirk Cousins, QB (1): In 2015, Cousins established himself as a solid NFL quarterback. That summer, the Redskins told Cousins they wanted him to prove it all over again before giving him a monster contract. Cousins was happy to oblige and he has now increased his value even further. After a so-so start to 2016 season, Cousins closed out strong to finish as Pro Football Focus’ No. 8 ranked QB, putting him ahead of notables such as Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, and Philip Rivers. All of those players have gotten their big pay day and now it’s time for Cousins to join the club. "<strong

2. Chandler Jones, LB/DE (2): Before you start salivating over the idea of Jones joining your favorite team’s front seven, we have some bad news: Bruce Arians says the Cardinals will place the franchise tag on him if they cannot agree on a long-term deal. Whether it’s on a one-year, $16.955MM deal or a multi-year contract that tops Olivier Vernon‘s Giants deal, it sounds like Jones is staying put. Jones, 27 in May, played in all 16 games this year and racked up 11 sacks.

3. Kawann Short, DT (4): Contract talks between the Panthers and Short stalled last summer and Fletcher Cox‘s market-boosting deal with the Eagles didn’t help matters. Short wound up playing 2016 for peanuts ($1.473MM) and he turned in yet another stellar season. Short was the fourth-best interior defender in the league this season, per Pro Football Focus, and his 87.7 overall score was roughly the same as his 2015 mark, even though he had five less sacks. In June, it was said that the Panthers did not want to go too far beyond an average annual salary of $15MM. If he’s not franchised tagged or signed to a long-term deal by Carolina, there are a few teams that will happily go beyond that point.

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AFC East Notes: Sheard, Patriots, Jets

Following a productive 2015 season, many expected Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard to get paid this offseason. Instead, the Patriots have continued to reduce the 27-year-old’s playing time, culminating in the former second-rounder being inactive for last weekend’s game against the 49ers.

For what it’s worth, the impending free agent isn’t sweating his reduced role.

“It is what it is,” Sheard told WEEI’s Ryan Hannable. “I can only control what I can control.”

Sheard has compiled 18 tackles and 3.5 sacks this season, and he still has plenty of time to pad those numbers before he reaches free agency. Ultimately, the veteran understands that there’s only so much he can control.

“Just do my job, I think,” Sheard said. “Everything else, leave it up to coach. Just practice hard and when I get the opportunity play hard.”

Let’s check out some more notes out of the AFC East…

  • Tom E. Curran of examines what the Patriots could do with all of their cap space this offseason. The writer believes the team will look to retain many of their key free agents, including Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Butler, and Martellus Bennett. Curran notes that Sheard and defensive tackle Alan Branch “don’t figure to be high-priority guys at this juncture.”
  • The Jets will likely miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, and Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News says it’s time for owner Woody Johnson to “tear it down and set a proper foundation.” The writer believes it’s best to build through the draft, and he cautions that the organization should avoid “the quick fix” signings.
  • If the Jets finish the season with a 5-11 or 6-10 record, ESPN’s Rich Cimini believes coach Todd Bowles will keep his job. The writer notes that the organization is valuing continuity, and firing Bowles after only two seasons would certainly contradict that strategy.