Armando Salguero

Paying pending free agent Dont’a Hightower would fill a hole for the Miami Dolphins, leave others unattended

New England Patriots Dont'a Hightower sacks Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan and forces a fumble during Super Bowl 51.
New England Patriots Dont'a Hightower sacks Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan and forces a fumble during Super Bowl 51. AP

Dont’a Hightower is, on the surface, exactly what the Miami Dolphins need.

He is an extraordinarily talented linebacker which is great for the Dolphins because they are in quite short supply of extraordinarily talented backers on their roster right now.

Hightower is an excellent 4-3 outside linebacker with coverage and pass rush skills. He’s fast for his size, which happens to be 6-3 and 265 pounds. He’s excellent against the run. He is versatile because he can play either outside or in the middle.

And he happens to be a New England Patriots team defensive captain and a team leader.

One more thing: He’s likely hitting free agency next week so he’ll be available to the highest bidder unless the Patriots show such desperation to retain him that they put either a franchise or transition tag on him before the 4 p.m. Wednesday deadline.

So, it stands to reason, because Hightower is a beast and happens to be New England’s beast, the beast-lusting Dolphins should be drooling at the thought of signing, right?

Well, that was more or less the case internally for a couple of minutes a few weeks ago.

The Dolphins, like any other team that has a linebacker need, would love to add Hightower.

And then financial reality set in ...

...As it might have set in for the Patriots.

Dont’a Hightower, you see, may be ready to break the free agency bank.

He will definitely do this on a one-year basis if the Patriots go nuts and franchise him. That would put a one-year tender north of $14 million on Hightower.

And that would give him a higher one-year salary than other linebackers who are not fulltime pass rushers such as Clay Matthews ($13.2 million), Jamie Collins ($12.5 million) and Luke Kuechly ($12.3 million).

If, however, the Patriots do not lose their minds, if they don’t play the franchise tender card, Hightower is going into free agency and his chances of returning to New England become very slim because a source familiar with his thinking says the player wants a a big payday and a chance to see how getting out from under the Bill Belichick-Nick Saban umbrella where he’s resided since college might suit him.

Yes, according to this source, Hightower would welcome a chance to play elsewhere where he could be more himself.

But any team willing to let Hightower taste whatever professional freedom he craves has to pay a steep price for the privilege.

How steep?

I’m told the ballpark asking price Hightower was seeking “a couple of weeks ago” was $11 million per season. And as players and agents often do, the price could have only climbed as free agency, which begins March 9, draws closer.

(A real world note about NFL tampering this time of year: By NFL rule, teams are not supposed to discuss possibly adding pending free agents from other teams with players or agents until March 7. But the entire league, indeed, every single team without exception tampers. Coaches and personnel people and agents go to Mobile, AL., for the Senior Bowl in January and talk about, what else, pending free agents and their expected negotiating price. The NFL is also unable to shut off the phones in team headquarters throughout the league between January and March 7 so people pick up phones and talk to each about players on other teams. And this week at the NFL Scouting Combine, agents, coaches, and personnel people are again engaging in a round robin game of tampering. Everyone knows it because everyone does it. So forgive me for pulling a curtain back on the truth of it all).

And because the horribly constructed paragraph you just read is nonetheless true, teams know the ballpark asking prices for some (perhaps all) free agents even now -- before the legal tampering period begins. And everyone talks. So the media gets a scent on some of those numbers.

That is the reason I was able to report Monday the ballpark negotiating price for Dolphins pending free agent Kenny Stills.

And it is the reason I’ve been told the ballpark negotiating price for Hightower was at $11 million per year a couple of weeks ago.

Honestly, based on some contracts out there, $11 million a year is not outrageous. Hightower turned in the defensive play of the game in Super Bowl 51 when he collected a strip sack on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter, and that merely capped off a very good season that included 65 tackles, a forced fumble and 2.5 sacks.

So a desperate team with ample cap space might be willing to give Hightower his big payday and the freedom he seems to crave.

But it doesn’t seem as if the Dolphins are that team -- at least not as far as I have been able to uncover.

Again, the Dolphins love Hightower. But they don’t love $11 million per year for one very good linebacker.

And it’s not because they can’t afford it. The Dolphins will have enough cap space to pay Hightower if that was their desire.

But, you see, this team is not one player away from heading to next year’s Super Bowl in Minnesota. This team needs a linebacker. And another linebacker. And a defensive end. And another defensive end. And a defensive tackle. And a guard. And another guard.

And if Stills bolts, this team has to add a wide receiver.

And this team has to pay those players.

And this team has to also count its pennies down the road because it wants to pay Kiko Alonso. And Jarvis Landry. And Reshad Jones.

So the issue is not whether to add Hightower if he hits free agency.

The issue is if you’re adding Hightower, what holes are you leaving elsewhere because there simply isn’t enough cap space to go around for a team with so many needs.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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