Let's start with this thought: The New England Patriots shouldn’t let Dont'a Hightower escape. Chances are, in fact, that they won’t. He’s a valuable member of their defense, a playmaker who can line up in a few different spots. And his coach, Bill Belichick, is a big fan.
There's a good chance that if Hightower isn’t signed before free agency, he’ll be tagged.
But ... what if he becomes available?
Why he’d make sense: The Washington Redskins want to upgrade wherever they can defensively -- and he would represent improvement. That’s not a knock on anyone, it’s just reality. The former first-round pick has played well in big games and is versatile. Hightower can play a number of linebacker spots, allowing a coordinator to be creative. He has shown he can play inside or outside, depending on the package. In the Super Bowl, for example, Hightower was aligned as an inside linebacker behind some three-man fronts and as the game wore on, he was aligned more on the edge -- like a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s excellent against the run from either spot and can drop into zones and cover OK. The Redskins do have Will Compton and Mason Foster inside, and they’d be helped playing behind an improved front. However, Hightower is bigger than the average 3-4 inside linebacker (reminder: the Redskins only play a true 3-4 perhaps 20-25 percent of the time. For what it’s worth, there will be tweaks and changes in how they run their defense, but new coordinator Greg Manusky has said he plans to still use the 3-4 as the base). Hightower does have good speed, though -- he ran a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash at the combine five years ago. Speed and size is always the best combination.
Here's what Belichick recently told reporters about Hightower: "He's a great football player. Five years [with the team], a versatile player, inside linebacker, outide linebacker, setting the edge, defensive end in passing situations. He'll be on the field for you every down, and it's just a question of where you want to put him. He can do all those things. Not only that, High's smart, he's tough, he gives us good leadership, and a lot of communication."
Why he wouldn’t: Just because the Redskins have a lot of cap space it doesn’t mean they’ll go crazy. That hasn’t been their method under president Bruce Allen and cap guru Eric Schaffer. First and foremost, they must fortify their defensive line (they can do so in free agency, the draft or both). If they’re going to spend bigger for a player, look for it to be along the front. The impact spots in their defense remain the outside linebackers (who need to make a bigger one as a group) and cornerback. It would be an expensive deal -- the Patriots could tag him for about $15 million. Chances are if not tagged, he’ll get probably $11 million per year. That’s a lot of money at a position not considered an impact one; as good as Hightower is, he has no career interceptions and two forced fumbles in the regular season. He has one pick and one forced fumble in 12 postseason games. He's played all 16 games just once in his career. The Redskins could easily decide to take that money and try to fortify a few spots rather than just one. They know if they improve the line, there’s a trickle-down effect on others, starting with Compton and Foster. The Redskins like both players and though they know they could upgrade, they also know there are ways to help them. Even if they sign Hightower, they'd need to address the line.