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Breaking down the Patriots' free-agent options with LB Dont'a Hightower

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Wednesday marks the first day that NFL teams can assign the franchise or transition tag on players, and the primary question with the New England Patriots is if the team does so with linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

A few key points:

  • The window to tag players extends from Feb. 15 to March 1

  • Teams can use only one tag each offseason

  • There are two types of franchise tags: non-exclusive (most common) and exclusive

  • The transition tag is a lesser option that is the average of the top 10 salaries at the position and allows the team right of first refusal on any offer a free agent might receive

What will the Patriots do with Hightower? Let's break down the options.

Case for assigning Hightower the franchise tag

Hightower’s value to the Patriots was highlighted with his exceptional second-half performance in Super Bowl LI. He’s a defensive captain, signal-caller, and is in his prime (turning 27 in March), which are all positives when it comes to a team making a big financial investment. Using the tag would essentially ensure his return in 2017 (it’s hard to imagine a team signing him to an offer sheet and giving up draft-pick compensation if the Patriots don’t match), which should help the defense continue to make positive strides after its strong finish to the 2016 season. While the goal would be a longer-term contract extension, the Patriots could use the tag to buy more time to strike that deal, similar to what they did with Vince Wilfork in 2010. One issue, however, is that Hightower might be more inclined to play on the one-year tag with a chance to hit the open market again in 2018.

Case for not assigning Hightower the franchise tag

While the exact franchise-tag figure for linebackers is yet to be determined -- it can’t be calculated until the NFL officially sets the salary cap -- it is expected to be in the range of $14.5 million to $15 million. That’s a significant number which would rank No. 1 on the team ahead of quarterback Tom Brady ($14 million) and left tackle Nate Solder ($11.1 million). Absorbing that cap charge, despite the Patriots’ abundant cap space, could restrict their ability to make some other moves they would otherwise have the flexibility to make. When safety Devin McCourty was a free agent two years ago, the Patriots elected against using the franchise tag to avoid a large one-year cap charge, then entered a competitive open-market situation before signing him to a long-term deal at the last moment. That could be their thinking with Hightower as well if they choose this route.

Case for assigning Hightower the transition tag

Because the franchise tag figure is projected to be in the $14.5-15 million range, the transition tag would be a more affordable fallback option (projected to be in the $11 million range) for the team while it worked toward a potential long-term deal with Hightower. The transition tag would give the Patriots the right of first refusal on any contract Hightower might receive in free agency, thus providing the club some leverage. The potential issue, though, is that the team would be allowing another club to dictate terms of a contract it would be absorbing. Nonetheless, if the Patriots feel confident they are in position to match any offer -- and feel the best strategic approach is to let the market dictate what Hightower ultimately receives -- this could be the team’s best course of action.