LB Dont'a Hightower headlines Patriots' free-agent priority list

If the Patriots decide to use the franchise tag, they're likely to do so on linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s been a week since the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, which means it’s time to begin shifting focus to the team’s upcoming free-agent business.

Here is one view on the team’s free-agent class, ranked from top to bottom:

1. Dont’a Hightower: He turns 27 on March 12 and is the prime candidate to receive the franchise tag if the Patriots decide to use it. Hightower’s second-half performance in Super Bowl LI was as impressive as it gets, emblematic of how he often brings his best in the most critical moments. With Hightower playing all 16 regular-season games just once in his first five NFL seasons, it makes sense to think the Patriots will prioritize a contract with game-day roster bonuses. Hightower, for his part, will look to receive as much guaranteed money as possible.

2. Malcolm Butler: A restricted free agent, Butler should receive the first-round tender from the Patriots. That means he would receive a one-year tender offer worth around $4 million, but another team could sign him to an offer sheet, and if the Patriots don’t match they would receive a first-round pick in return. The Patriots likely don’t want to leave themselves vulnerable to that scenario, which is why it makes sense to pursue a long-term extension this offseason. Butler turns 27 on March 2.

3. Martellus Bennett: He turns 30 on March 10 and is the top tight end set to hit the unrestricted free-agent market. The Patriots put a lot of miles on his odometer in 2016, and how that affects Bennett’s future production will be something for the team to consider in any negotiation. He’s the best complement/replacement the team has had with Rob Gronkowski, and while the Patriots would like to have him back, it’s hard to imagine them getting into a bidding war to retain him if another team ups the ante.

4. Alan Branch: The 32-year-old defensive tackle was the team’s most consistent player at the position in 2016, according to coach Bill Belichick, and should be a priority to re-sign. A two-year, $11 million deal similar to what Vince Wilfork signed in Houston two years ago would seem to be the target range of Branch’s market.

5. Logan Ryan: He’s on the short list among the NFL’s best run-force/tackling cornerbacks, has high-end ball skills, and his flexibility to play inside and outside adds to his value. The sense is the Patriots would like him back, but it could be a situation where the open market dictates how likely it is that happens; if the numbers are in the $7-8 million per season range, it would seem less likely he’s back. With Butler also in the free-agent mix, the Patriots might have to choose one or the other.

6. Michael Floyd: This will likely be a situation in which Floyd signs a one-year, prove-it type of deal, and he’s already talked about how he hoped that will be in Foxborough. Floyd entered 2016 with high hopes of putting together a big year and then striking it rich in free agency, which didn't happen. Re-upping with the Patriots in 2017 gives him the best chance for that scenario next offseason.

7. Jabaal Sheard: Plans for him to be the primary replacement for Chandler Jones in 2016 didn’t come to fruition, but the defensive end saved his best for last, showing his versatility in Super Bowl LI by aligning in different spots (e.g., off the line of scrimmage) and even dropping into coverage at times. He had signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Patriots in 2015.The club likely wouldn’t eclipse that this offseason.

8. Duron Harmon: He played 48.6 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season, which reflects how the team’s No. 3 safety plays a big role as essentially a 12th starter. The Patriots value the role, but likely wouldn’t pay him at true starter-like levels with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung locked into top roles at the position.

9. LeGarrette Blount: He has said how much he enjoys playing in New England, and while the club could dip into the draft’s deep pool at running back, a strong case could be made to bring him back on a similar contract to what he signed last offseason after he turned in a career year.

10. James Develin: In the on-field celebration after Super Bowl LI, Belichick told the fullback (via NFL Films) that he brings a valuable toughness to the team. The position usually doesn’t break the bank, and thus it would be a mild surprise if Develin isn’t back in 2017.

11. Brandon Bolden: He's a core special-teams player who adds depth at running back, and quarterback Tom Brady called him one of the best teammates he’s ever had. Keeping him shouldn’t require a major financial investment.

12. Chris Long: The 31-year-old finished the year as a designated pass-rusher, and said of the offseason on ESPN Radio, “I’m excited for the next step. I didn’t know coming into this year that I could still play football at a high level. I feel like I can play just as well as I did before I started getting hurt [in 2014-15].” The biggest question for New England will be if it wants to go younger and cheaper at the position, which seems like it has greater odds of being the case.

13. Barkevious Mingo: Acquired from the Browns during the season, he ended up filling a core special-teams role and little else. He doesn’t have a defined position on defense; he was used mostly as a sub-rushing defensive end, even though his body type suggests he'd be better player off the line of scrimmage. Any contract likely wouldn’t be for much more than the minimum level.

14. Greg Scruggs: The blocking tight end hurt his knee shortly after the Patriots signed him during the season. If he returns in 2017, it would be on a modest deal.