Few saw this coming.
Why the delay? And where are things headed?
There are no decisive answers to those questions right now, and as is the case in free agency, things can change in an instant. But until they do, let’s focus on what we know and how it might apply to one of the more unique developments of the past 48 hours.
A few days after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, Hightower told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter of his free-agency plans: “I love what I have in New England. I don’t have too much drawn up. I just want to be respected and loved.”
The Patriots want Hightower back, and while placing the franchise tag on him was never a strong consideration, the transition tag was. But in the end, the team didn’t go that route (a transition tag would have given New England the right to match any offer Hightower received) in what could be viewed as an act of good faith. The idea was that the Patriots would allow Hightower to explore the open market with no restrictions, and by doing so, Hightower might be more inclined to keep an open dialogue with Bill Belichick & Co., and likely give the club a chance to match any offers he received.
No team has obviously stepped up with the type of offer Hightower, 26, was hoping for. Perhaps that could still come, but offers generally don’t go up after the first wave of free agency.
When I reached out to a coach for one linebacker-needy NFL team about Hightower, the response surprised me. Hightower, I was told, wasn’t a fit for that team. One example was that one of Hightower’s best assets is his rush ability, and this particular team doesn’t use its linebackers that way.
That got me thinking about how Hightower, at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, is a unique player who doesn’t fit into the traditional linebacker box. Few have his combination of size, power, football IQ and big-game chops, but he’s not a quick-twitch athlete, his production doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, and there is an injury history for teams to consider.
Thus, a flexible defensive scheme and a creative coaching staff are an important combination to maximize what makes Hightower so special.
The Patriots certainly qualify, but are there really many other schemes and coaching staffs like that across the NFL? Perhaps that explains why no other NFL club has been decisively linked to Hightower through the first two days of free agency, assuming something big hasn't been cooking behind the scenes and is about to explode.
If so, it could spark a dynamic where the Patriots do value Hightower most, but Hightower himself isn’t yet feeling the love and respect he’d hoped for, especially after seeing former teammates Jamie Collins (Browns) and Chandler Jones (Cardinals) cash in big time elsewhere.
Would that make it harder for him to walk back through the locker room door in New England? Sometimes it's easier for a player to take less money elsewhere with a fresh start than settling for something with the team that you just gave everything you had over the past five years.
It’s all theory at this point. Answers should be coming soon.
By this point, almost everyone thought those answers would have been known regarding Hightower.