Strategic planning must start now for Patriots with 'Big Four' on defense

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- On Wednesday morning, a ranking of the New England Patriots' free agents was passed along for this upcoming offseason, which highlights how the team doesn't have a significant group.

That's why, in many ways, this offseason is as much about strategic planning with the "Big Four" on defense -- cornerback Malcolm Butler, defensive end Chandler Jones and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. All have contracts that expire after the 2016 season, which gives the sides a full calendar year to explore extensions.

Owner Robert Kraft had touched on this dynamic when discussing cornerback Darrelle Revis and how he signed a free-agent deal with the New York Jets last offseason.

"We just don't think about short-term decisions. For example, next year we have three very good young defensive players coming up and we have to factor that," he said.

At the time, the Patriots didn't know Butler would be part of that mix as well. So now it's four.

Here is one viewpoint as to how the Patriots might consider prioritizing each player, and some of the dynamics in play.

1. Dont'a Hightower -- With a base salary/cap figure of $7.75 million, the linebacker who just completed his fourth season could provide some cap relief with a longer-term deal. He's one of the more physical players in the NFL at his position, plays different spots, is smart with the ability to align the defense, and moves well for his size (6-foot-3, 265 pounds). One concern is injuries, as he only played 54 percent of the defensive snaps in 2015, so playing-time incentives would likely be a part of any possible extension. A deal in the $8 million-per-year range seems within reason.

2. Jamie Collins -- From a pure talent perspective, the athletic linebacker is No. 1 on the list. But from a timing standpoint, there might be less urgency on the team's side to consummate an extension at this date on the calendar because of his manageable cap hit ($1.19 million) for 2016. Any extension would likely increase that cap charge, as Collins could be in line for a top-of-the-market contract in the Bobby Wagner range of an average of $10.75 million per season.

3. Malcolm Butler -- He's on the books for $600,000 in 2016, which makes him one of the NFL's best bargains, and puts him into a similar situation as Collins from an urgency standpoint. The team might be willing to wait a bit because any extension will likely increase his salary-cap charge. Furthermore, Butler would be a restricted free agent after the 2016 season, so the team still retains leverage in that it can tender him at the highest level, making it unlikely he would depart. Still, in terms of talent, the second-year player has to be a priority from a long-term perspective; the question is when. He's also clearly out-performed his rookie deal.

4. Chandler Jones -- The defensive end led the team with 12.5 sacks in the regular season, and, like Hightower, could offer some of the greatest salary-cap relief as he's due a base salary/cap charge of $7.79 million. So that could move him up the list from a timing standpoint. As for performance, 2015 ended in shaky fashion for Jones, who had a quiet AFC Championship Game (one tackle), but a deal in the $8 million-per-year range seems possible for him on the open market. Whether the Patriots would be comfortable going there remains to be seen.

NOTE: The Patriots, like all teams, have use of the franchise tag to restrict a player's ability to fully experience free agency.