Dont'a Hightower's free-agent process could resemble Devin McCourty's

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After a day in which five players received the franchise tag across the NFL, the question in New England was obvious: What about the Patriots and linebacker Dont'a Hightower?

Here's my read on the situation:

It would be a surprise if the Patriots use the franchise tag on Hightower. That is not believed to be a serious consideration for the club at this time based on the projected cost -- somewhere between $14.5 million and $15 million on a one-year term.

That wouldn't necessarily mean Hightower and the Patriots won't ultimately come to an agreement on an extension, but it strengthens the possibility that Hightower would first have a chance to explore the open market and assess other options. That would make his situation similar to what safety Devin McCourty experienced two offseasons ago when the Patriots didn't assign him the franchise tag, and McCourty fielded offers from other clubs, but also kept an open dialogue with the Patriots before eventually striking an extension to return.

Taking that approach puts the Patriots at risk of losing a key player, but the idea of letting the market dictate things isn't anything new for the club.

As Bill Belichick said in September, "I don't think you can be afraid of free agency. It's not like if a guy gets to free agency you can't re-sign him. You're in a competitive market but, you know, you're in a competitive market anyway."

The Patriots could protect themselves by assigning Hightower the transition tag, which would be closer to $11 million on a one-year term and give them the right of first refusal to any deal he signs in free agency. While that might be viewed as smart business by some (hand raised), there also is a line of thinking that there is more to be gained in the big picture by not restricting a player's ability to fully experience free agency, and that if there is a strong enough trust built up between a player and team, the player would give the team a chance to match any offer regardless.

So it's entirely possible the tag deadline passes and the Patriots don't use it on Hightower. If that's the way it unfolds, it wouldn't necessarily mean Hightower is gone, as we learned with McCourty.

But it could lead to some nail-biting, anxious moments as the free-agent process unfolds.