Dont'a Hightower

Patriots Notes: Newton, Gilmore, Hightower

Shortly after the Patriots drafted Mac Jones in the first round, head coach Bill Belichick came out and said Cam Newton would remain the team’s starter until he was unseated. While a lot of coaches might express similar sentiments with respect to their veterans and not really mean it, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe writes that he doesn’t think “that’s just lip service” from Belichick. Newton didn’t play well in 2020, but he also had a poor supporting cast and Belichick seems to be genuinely fond of him. Volin believes that “the Patriots’ quarterback job is Newton’s until he gets hurt or is clearly holding the team back.”

He adds that at a “minimum” he doesn’t think the team will want Jones to “have to deal with the pressure of playing against Tom Brady in the big return game in Week 4.” Volin highlights the week after their Week 11 Thursday night game against Atlanta as a good time to potentially make the switch. We’ve previously heard that the Patriots are going to hold a true open competition in training camp between Newton and Jones, but Volin seems to think the vet is a somewhat heavy favorite in that battle. If Jones flashes in the preseason that could change things in a hurry.

Here’s more from New England as they look to bounce back from a rough 2020:

  • Last week Stephon Gilmore confirmed he isn’t happy with his current contract, saying “I just want what I’m worth,” but also said he wouldn’t be demanding a trade. Gilmore said he hoped his camp and the team could “find common ground” and get something done, and Mike Reiss of ESPN.com has an idea of what that might look like. Rather than outright adding guaranteed millions to his existing $7MM salary for 2021, “adding easily-earned incentives to Gilmore’s contract would fall most closely in line with the Patriots’ approach” in recent years, Reiss writes. He highlights how the team added millions in incentives to Rob Gronkowski and Brady’s contracts from 2017-18 to make their compensation more in-line with their market value as a potential blueprint. Reiss thinks the Pats would be more inclined to add incentives for this season rather than do a long-term extension because of concerns about their 2022 salary cap situation, as well as Gilmore’s relatively advanced age (31 in September).
  • Gilmore might not be the only member of this Patriots defense to have contract drama coming up. Star linebacker Dont’a Hightower opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, and is set to make $8.725MM with another $2MM in incentives available when he makes his return this season. Volin writes that his “hunch” is that Hightower is “worried about the Patriots asking him to take a pay cut.” Hightower turned 31 in March, and obviously hasn’t played since the 2019 season. He did make the Pro Bowl that year and has been a leader in New England for a while, but the Pats have never gotten too sentimental in the past. Gilmore is getting most of the attention, but it sounds like this could be another situation to monitor.

Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower On Retirement Rumors

Despite speculation to the contrary, Patriots veteran Dont’a Hightower says he never considered retiring this offseason (via Chris Mason of Mass Live). After opting out of the 2020 season, the linebacker says it’s all systems go for 2021.

I don’t know what y’all want for me to say, man. I’m here. I’m working. I’m in minicamp, bruh. I’m not here to write a story for you, dawg,” Hightower said. “I’m here to work, man. I’m here. I don’t know what else y’all want me to say. If I wasn’t here, then I think that would be something to talk about. But I’m here. Hopefully that knocks all those questions out.”

Hightower was one of several Patriots players to opt out last year. But, as he reminded reporters, he did so to protect his 2-week-old son.

Hightower was slated to make $8MM in base salary, his would-be walk year. March. Now, his contract has tolled, putting him on course for free agency next spring.

The 31-year-old has been a staple in the Patriots’ starting lineup since entering the league in 2012. Injuries aside – including a mostly lost 2017 – he’s served as the club’s locker room leader and the point guard of the defense. In 2019, the off-ball ‘backer earned his second Pro Bowl trip and even managed 5.5 sacks from the middle.

Needless to say, the Pats are happy to have him back in the fold this year. He’ll return to his place in the starting lineup alongside Kyle Van Noy and Ja’Whaun Bentley.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Patriots Notes: Hightower, Chung, Cannon

The Patriots had eight players opt out of the 2020 campaign, the most in the NFL. The organization will naturally welcome back a handful of these players, but Jeff Howe of The Athletic writes that others may have already played their final game in a Patriots uniform.

For keepers, Dont’a Hightower seems like a guarantee to come back. Besides the two-time Pro Bowler’s on-field production, the Patriots would save only $9.95MM by releasing the 30-year-old; the organization wouldn’t be able to sign a player of Hightower’s caliber with that kind of money. It’s a similar sentiment for safety Patrick Chung. The team would only save $1MM by cutting the veteran, and Chung could still have a role on defense alongside the likes of Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips.

As for lesser names, Howe opines that running back/special teams ace Brandon Bolden will likely be back in 2021. The team would save $1.5MM by cutting the 31-year-old, but the organization clearly values his special teams ability. Elsewhere, fullback Danny Vitale ($1.2MM savings) will compete with Jakob Johnson for the starting gig, while tight end Matt LaCosse ($1.3MM) will compete for the third tight end spot. Both of those players’ roster spots are dependent on the camp competition.

One name that could be on his way out of New England is Marcus Cannon. The team could save $7MM by cutting the veteran, who already showed signs of decline in 2018 and 2019. The organization also appears to have their long-term answer at right tackle in Michael Onwenu. On the flip side, Onwenu could also be an option at left guard, which could carve a path to a roster spot for Cannon. Either way, Howe believes the Patriots will ask Cannon to take a pay cut.

Two other names that are probably long shots to stick around: wideout Marqise Lee ($687K savings) and offensive lineman Najee Toran ($780K). Howe says Lee could stick around as a reclamation project, but the reporter is confident Toran probably won’t make the team.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC East Notes: Saleh, Darnold, Patriots, Bills

Robert Saleh signed his contract with the Jets today, making him the 20th head coach in franchise history. While speaking to the media, the former 49ers defensive coordinator indicated that he’d be looking for specific types of players as he helps general manager Joe Douglas fill out the roster.

“There are no shortcuts to success, and I am committed to working with Joe to build this team the right way: with talented players that play fast and smart, and a staff that supports and helps develop them through it all,” Saleh said (via the team website).

Douglas, who led the coaching search alongside included team president Hymie Elhai, noted that Saleh believes in many of the same principals that the executive brought with him from Philadelphia when he joined the Jets in 2019.

“We spoke to some tremendous coaches, but Rob is the right partner and leader for us,” Douglas said. “His vision for this team aligns with what we have been working to establish here the last two years.”

The 41-year-old Saleh was an early favorite for the job based on the strength of his SF defense. In 2020, the Niners finished fifth in total yards, seventh in rushing yards, and fourth in passing yards allowed. In 2019, Saleh’s D surrendered just 169.2 passing yards per contest — the lowest average since Rex Ryan‘s 2009 Jets D.

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

  • Saleh and new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur have spent time evaluating Sam Darnold‘s tape, and the coaches believe the Jets quarterback has “untapped potential,” per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. The former third-overall pick had a rough season in 2020, leading some to wonder whether the new staff would prefer to take a quarterback with the second-overall pick.
  • The eight Patriots players who opted out of the 2020 season were asked to return for year-end physicals last week, writes ESPN’s Mike Reiss. Wideout Marqise Lee and running back Brandon Bolden have both said they plan to play in 2021, and Reiss opines that safety Patrick Chung, tight end Matt LaCosse, and fullback Danny Vitale will also return. However, the writer is much less certain that offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be back in New England.
  • While Dave Ziegler was always an underdog in the Broncos GM search, he parlayed that experience into a “multiyear contract and pay bump as Nick Caserio‘s successor” in New England, writes Reiss. The Patriots assistant director of player personnel eventually withdrew his name from the search in Denver, and Reiss writes that this is a “reflection of the decisiveness that has earned him a measure of respect in the Patriots’ offices over the past eight year.”
  • Bills running back Zack Moss underwent minor surgery on his ankle this morning, tweets ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The 23-year-old is expected to make a full recovery from the “tight rope procedure,” and he should be ready to go for offseason workouts. The third-rounder finished his rookie campaign having compiled 576 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.

Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower To Opt Out Of 2020 Season

Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower will opt out of the 2020 season, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. Hightower wrestled with the decision, but ultimately decided to skip the season in order to protect his 2-week-old son. 

Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football — especially the new addition to our family,” Hightower explained.

With that, Hightower becomes the fifth Patriots player to opt out. Running back Brandon Bolden, right tackle Marcus Cannon, fullback Danny Vitale, and guard Najee Toran have also decided against playing. Hightower is the highest profile player of the Pats bunch, and one of the more notable players league-wide to opt out.

Hightower was slated to make $8MM in base salary before reaching free agency in March. Now, his contract will toll, with that final year being moved to 2021. With Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts out of the picture, the Patriots were counting on Hightower to hold down the fort at linebacker. There aren’t a ton of impact off-ball linebackers left on the open market, so the Patriots will likely have to work with what they have on hand.

Hightower, 30, has been a staple in the Patriots’ starting lineup since entering the league in 2012. Injuries aside – including a mostly lost 2017 – he’s served as the club’s locker room leader and the point guard of the defense. Last year, Hightower earned his second Pro Bowl trip and even managed 5.5 sacks from the middle.

Hightower’s opt-out falls under the “voluntary” label, meaning that he’s entitled to a $150K salary advance (likely negated by his 2020 earnings to date). Cannon, meanwhile, is “higher risk,” which means he’ll get a $350K stipend (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero). Cannon had two years to go on his current deal with a total of $9.5MM in base pay. His contract will also toll, with his 2020 season being bumped up to 2021.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Patriots’ Hightower Won’t Take Pay Cut

Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower is unwilling to accept a pay cut this offseason, according to Doug Kyed of NESN.com. The Pats have yet to approach Hightower about a pay reduction, however, so it may be a moot point. 

It has been speculation that Hightower could be a cap casualty due to his nearly $11MM cap hit and $7MM salary for the upcoming season. If released, Hightower knows that he would find a ripe market for his services with teams like the Lions and Dolphins in need of a middle linebacker. The Pats, meanwhile, would save $5.945MM and carry a dead money hit charge of $5MM.

Hightower, 29 in March, was healthy in 2018, which was a step up from his five-game campaign in 2017. However, his 48 tackles were the lowest total of any full season in his career. The advanced metrics were down on him, too. He graded out as just the No. 51 ranked linebacker in the NFL with a career-worst 63.7 mark. Along with the 48 tackles, Hightower had three tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, an interception, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery.

Hightower re-upped with the Patriots in 2017 on a four-year pact worth $35.5MM. He reportedly had a five-year deal worth $62.5MM on the table from the Jets, but opted to stay at home instead.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Patriots Place Dont’a Hightower On IR

The Patriots have officially placed Dont’a Hightower on injured reserve, according to Field Yates of ESPN.com (on Twitter). This was the expected move after the linebacker suffered a torn pectoral muscle in October, though there was some hope that he could return to action after resting for a period of time.Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)

League rules dictate that players who are placed on IR must be out of action for at least eight weeks. With only eight games to go, his season is now officially over.

Without Hightower, the Patriots have been using veteran David Harris as the starting middle linebacker with Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy on the strong side and weak side, respectively. They’ve fortified the front seven by signing outside linebacker Trevor Reilly in October and adding defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois earlier today, but Hightower’s production and leadership cannot be easily replaced.

Hightower’s season ends with five appearances, two sacks, and 14 total tackles.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Patriots’ Dont’a Hightower Done For Season?

3:35pm: Hightower underwent surgery to repair the damaged pectoral muscle on Thursday, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets. Rapoport adds the veteran linebacker is expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2018 season.

10:30am: The Patriots still do not know if Hightower will be out for the year, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets. Hightower will visit Dr. James Andrews to get a better assessment of the damage.

9:51am: Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower will miss the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (on Twitter). The Pats are expected to formally place him on injured reserve on Thursday afternoon. Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)

Losing Hightower is a major blow to the Patriots’ defense. As the team’s middle linebacker, Hightower was essentially the leader of the front seven and the extension of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on the field.

Hightower missed two of the Pats’ games in September and his absence was noticeable. Heading into Week 4, the usually solid Pats ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, and defensive DVOA. They can draw from a reserve group including Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts (missed Sunday’s game with an injury of his own), David Harris, Marquis Flowers, and Trevor Reilly, but it would make sense for them to explore available MLBs between now and the Halloween trade deadline.

Hightower, 27, 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. In the spring, he was rewarded with a four-year, $43.5MM deal, including $19MM guaranteed. The Patriots’ decision to keep Hightower and re-sign him on a large contract underscored his importance after they traded away other key defenders such as Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

AFC East Notes: Patriots, Hightower, Cutler

The Patriots were aware of Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks in the offseason when he was on the block and Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald (Twitter link) wonders if he could be a consideration for them now that Dont’a Hightower is dealing with a serious pectoral injury.

Kendricks has long been talked about as a trade candidate and he even requested a trade himself back in January. However, he has become vital to the team in the wake of Jordan Hicks‘ season-ending Achilles tear. Kendricks was on the field for 55 snaps in Week 6 and probably would have been in line for lots of burn last week if not for a hamstring injury. With a 6-1 record, the Eagles probably aren’t inclined to trade away a key defender like Kendricks before the deadline.

Here’s more from the AFC East:

  • If he’s ruled out for the season, Hightower will lose out on $2.6MM+ in bonuses from the Patriots due to the torn pectoral and his previous knee injuries, Howe tweets. Hightower’s deal includes extra cash based on per-game play and play-time as well as Pro Bowl and All-Pro appearances.
  • Despite his cracked ribs, Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler is expected to be available a week from Sunday vs. Oakland, a source tells Adam Schefter of ESPN.com (on Twitter). However, he will not be able to suit up for Thursday night’s game against Baltimore.
  • The Patriots had wide receiver Jake Kumerow and fullback Marquez Williams in for free agent workouts on Wednesday, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com tweets. Kumerow was signed to the practice squad on Thursday morning.

AFC Notes: Pats, Browns, Raiders, Dolphins

Dont’a Hightower is expected to return to action for the Patriots on Sunday after missing each of the club’s past two games with a knee sprain, a source tells Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. New England, notably, ranks dead last in the NFL in points allowed, yards allowed, and defensive DVOA. With the Patriots’ defense clearly missing its leader, Hightower’s return can’t come too soon. As Howe writes, New England had been using Hightower as an edge defender, but several defensive mistakes could lead the Pats to shift Hightower back to his natural off-ball linebacker position. Elandon Roberts, and possibly Kyle Van Noy, will likely see his snaps reduced as a result of Hightower’s return.

Here’s more from the AFC:

  • While Hightower will be back on the field in New England, the same can’t be said for Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game against the Bengals, reports Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, hasn’t played a regular season down this year as he deals with a high ankle sprain. Browns head coach Hue Jackson has hinted on multiple occasions that Garrett is “close” to returning, but the Texas A&M product will have to wait until at least Week 5 to make his NFL debut. Without Garrett in tow, Cleveland ranks just 23rd in adjusted sack rate.
  • Raiders cornerback Sean Smith pleaded not guilty on charges of assault and battery stemming from an alleged July altercation, as Michael Gehlken of the Las Vegas Review-Journal writes. The details of the incident are rather sordid, but Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio indicated the club would stand behind Smith until the legal process runs its course. On the field, Smith is no longer starting just one year after agreeing to a four-year, $38MM free agent contract. Thus far, he’s played only a quarter of the Raiders’ defensive snaps, fourth among Oakland corners.
  • Punter Brandon Fields has announced his retirement from the NFL following a nine-year career, his agent announced on Twitter. Fields, 33, last played for the Saints in 2015, but is most well-known for his eight-season run with the Dolphins from 2007-14. The former seventh-round pick appeared in 130 career games and maintained a yards per punt average of 46.7.