Curran: Is this the end for Dont'a Hightower in New England?


The New England Patriots have 18 players set to become free agents when the new league year begins March 16. We'll be covering each of the notable names with an analysis of where they stand in their respective careers, and whether we can expect them to return to Foxboro in 2022.

Patriots free agent evaluations: Devin McCourty

Next up, Dont'a Hightower.

Position: Linebacker

Age this season: 32

2021 salary: $8.875M

2021 games played: 15


Coming back from a 2020 COVID opt-out, Dont’a Hightower was one of the most expensive Patriots in 2021. He had a $12.4M cap hit and an $8.875M base salary as he played out the last year of his deal signed in 2017 (four years, $33.5M with $17M guaranteed)

He played 58.8 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps had 64 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one tackle for loss, four quarterback hits and one pass breakup.

The salary cap website does a valuation graph for every player showing how well they performed relative to other players at their position and relative to their contract. Hightower’s valuation was $2.173M. That’s not good.

He missed 10 tackles after missing seven tackles total in 2018 and 2019. As a pass defender, he was targeted 31 times and 28 of those were completed (90 percent). And while a high completion percentage can be expected on shorter throws on a linebacker, the 2019 completion percentage on his was 69 percent. His overall Pro Football Focus rating was 53.3 in 2021.

The 2019 version of Hightower was still a force. He played 71.3 percent of the snaps, had 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss, 13 QB hits and four passes defensed. It’s hard to envision Hightower getting back to being that player. So one of the great Patriots of the dynasty’s 2.0 edition is at a career crossroads.

The outlook

PFF still has Hightower ranked as the sixth-best linebacker option on the free-agent market and 75th overall. But the rest of the league would be challenged figuring out what to do with him. His versatility in New England as a run-stuffer, pass-rusher and on-field brains of the operation was based around his smarts, physicality and the fact he could physically throw around some of the planet’s biggest humans when necessary. A pissed-off Hightower was one of the league’s most potent forces from late 2013 into 2019. But he doesn’t fit the sleek, sideline-to-sideline suit of a 2022 linebacker so he’d be recruited as a role player by anyone else.

A one or two-year deal with an APY of $6M would be most likely for a player with Hightower’s resume but that would be a lot to pay for a player who may only be off the field on third down. The Patriots could still use the leadership and smarts of Hightower but his performance is declining. Could they make him a dedicated edge rusher opposite Matthew Judon? Would he accept a role change? Would he accept a significantly reduced salary? Do the Patriots need to move on and reboot the entire linebacker room?

There’s a lot to weigh for both Hightower and the Patriots.

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