By Sterling Pingree
On Wednesday, Dont’a Hightower chose to remain with the New England Patriots instead of taking more money to leave for conference rivals the Jets or Steelers. (Even though the Jets broke out the big guns and bought him cupcakes for his birthday! How do you pass up cupcakes from a 5-win team? What were the Steelers offering, quiche?) The rumors were through this entire process that Hightower was going to return to the Patriots after finding out what his market value was. Even with this narrative hanging above free agency, I think Patriots fans got nervous because of how long this played out.
The entire NFL goes into a dealing frenzy once the new league year starts and for once the Patriots were the most active, but all remained quiet on the Hightower front. The longer this process played out, the more it led to Patrtiots fans obsessively checking and rechecking Twitter for any hint that #54 had made up his mind to come home.
A year ago we knew that the Patriots were heading into difficult decisions with who to keep from a defense that seemed ready to peak for one season in 2016. Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler were going to become free agents and there was no way to pay all of them. The first domino fell a year ago when Belichick traded Jones to Arizona and attitudes shifted towards “well, he must be the one that was going to require the most money to stay”.
The stunner was when Jamie Collins was dealt to the Browns mid-season. Nobody saw it coming because most believed that the Patriots would sign both Hightower and Collins because of how different the two players were. Hightower was the defensive leader, the heir to the Patriots “Backerhood” created by guys like Vrabel, Bruschi and McGuinest (more on them later). Collins was a once in a generation athletic force. When the dust settled the implication was clear, Hightower was the chosen one, the most important member of the Patriots defense. That’s what made the last two weeks so tense, Belichick had dubbed Hightower the bell of the ball but Hightower wanted to be courted by all the suitors in town before committing to a prom date. (Didn’t think this was going to be that kind of column did you? Just wait, the next analogy goes some places.)
Tension mounted with each passing hour because Jones and Collins had already left and after the Gilmore signing, it looked like restricted free agent Malcolm Butler might force his way out of town as well. If Hightower decided to take more money elsewhere the team would lose all four of it’s top defensive players from 2015. Could Belichick really go oh-for-four when it came to re-signing his best players?
Hightower ultimately chose legacy over cash. The chance to improve his resume as a player over something that a lot of NFL players can do and that’s sign a big contract. But let’s unpack this a little bit, Hightower didn’t take a hometown discount to stay with the Patriots. The rumors were that the Steelers were offering around $10 million while the suddenly deep pocketed Jets were said to be offering $12 million. (It was not reported if Dont’a got to take any of those cupcakes home with him, but I doubt that would’ve been a sticking point. Imagine if it had been?) The deal with the Patriots came in right between the two of those at just under $11 million per year over 4 years.
The fact that the Patriots were willing to pay competitive market value to retain a marquee player on the open market speaks volume to Hightower’s importance to the Patriots. Dont’a Hightower is the defensive face of the New England Patriots. Not just for this current team, but for what you could call the “Brady & Belichick Era Act II”. (I look at it like this: Belichick and Brady are the parents of the Patriots Super Bowls. The first 3 Lombardi trophies came when they were young, they had just gotten together. Some time passed, the stars of those teams grew up and moved on to the real world of being analysts on TV and the house got kind of empty. So Brady & Belichick had some “late in life” kids with these last two Super Bowls and that came with new faces around Foxborough.) The Brady & Belichick Era Act I had defenses that evoke the names of Bruschi, Vrabel, Seymour, and McGuinest? For Part II? It really comes down to just 2 guys; Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower. They are the guys that you’ll think about when you think of the stars of the Patriots’ defenses in Super Bowls 49 and 51.(Coincidentally both explored the free agent market before resigning with the team.)
When Hightower agreed to come back to New England, he agreed to keep building his legacy. Who knows, maybe he can add another ring or two to his resume as a winner that would put him into the discussion of the hall of fame. Food for thought: if the Patriots were to win one or two more rings over the life of Hightower’s new contract, one would tie him with the aforementioned greats Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Richard Seymour and Willie McGuinest for most Super Bowls in team history. If the Patriots somehow win two more rings, leaving Hightower with four altogether, he could be in a class by himself.
Something like that, is worth more than money, or cupcakes.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.