Bennett, Hightower lead key free agents for Patriots

The New England Patriots are set to hit the offseason with more key players heading towards free agency than any other NFL team.

The "Patriot Way" dictates not all will return in 2017, as other teams pilfer productive players by outbidding Bill Belichick.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport ran down a list of some big names Tuesday:

1. Martellus Bennett

The tight end noted teams "overpay Super Bowl champions" after Sunday's victory. The productive target will look to cash in. A noted locker-room nuisance in several previous stops, Bennett proved he could fit into a winning culture in New England and produce on the field even when he didn't see massive targets.

We know the Patriots would like to keep Bennett, but at what cost?

Rapoport offered a "baseline" for the tight end's contract talks.

"If you want to look at what the baseline is going to be, as soon as the Patriots did the deal to trade for Martellus Bennett from the Bears -- who were basically going to cut him -- they offered $7 million per year, he turned it down," Rapoport said. "That is the baseline for where he is going to go."

We know the Patriots value the tight end position more than just about any team, and do not fear to invest heavily in it -- they paid Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at the same time in recent history.

One issue in re-signing Bennett is that Gronk is making $9 million per year, and the Pats won't pay Marty B more than Gronkowski, according to Rapoport. So, if a team decides to overpay Bennett, the Patriots would likely let him walk.

2. Dont'a Hightower

Per Rapoport, the Patriots are "looking at the possibility" of franchise tagging the linebacker to give sides time to agree on a long-term deal.

The Patriots essentially chose Hightower over Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones last year, when they traded the latter two.

RapSheet reported that New England offered both Collins and Hightower similar contracts before the season -- more than $10 million annually. Obviously, neither took a deal.

Given his leadership and vital playmaking (his strip of Matt Ryan turned around the Super Bowl) look for Hightower being the one player Belichick will pay to keep around.

3. Malcolm Butler

The corner is a restricted free agent. Rapoport noted the Patriots are expected to explore a new contract. Compensating an underpaid player, a year early, at slightly below market-level is a good management strategy.

4. LeGarrette Blount

The running back wants to return, and the team wants him back, per Rapoport. Given that his value is higher on the Patriots than on any other team, expect the sides to find equal footing at some point.

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