Dont'a Hightower to sign four-year deal with Patriots

After flirting with the Jets and Steelers in free agency, Dont'a Hightower is re-signing with the Patriots, the linebacker's agent announced on Wednesday. The new contract is worth $43.5 million over four years with $19 million guaranteed, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.

The average annual value ranks second only to Carolina's Luke Kuechly among inside linebackers, per NFL Research.

Although the Jets put on a full-court press, plying Hightower with cupcakes, happy birthday greetings, merchandise for his mother and reportedly the richest contract offer, the linebacker was never seriously tempted to leave New England for New York.

The Patriots' handling of Hightower is reminiscent of their approach to Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty's free agency two years ago. Rather than insult Hightower or McCourty with a lowball offer, the front office is content to allow the prospective free agent to determine his value on the open market.

Once the market value is established, the Pats make a competitive offer and rely upon their status as annual Super Bowl favorites to tip the scales in their favor. When the situation is approached with mutual respect, it's a win for the organization as well as the player.

In Hightower, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, New England drafted a trio of Pro Bowlers in 2012 and 2013. Even with Bill Belichick's reputation for setting a fixed number on a player's value, it was important to keep the one remaining defensive star from that group.

While Tom Brady, James White and Malcolm Butler have been showered with deserved praise for their defining moments in Super Bowls XLIX and LI, Hightower came through with game-changing plays in both championships. He's not just a defensive leader and sure tackler, but also Kuechly's primary competition as the best blitzing inside linebacker in football.

If you're keeping score at home, the Patriots have added physical cornerback Stephon Gilmore, dynamic wideout Brandin Cooks, three-down tight end Dwayne Allen, versatile running back Rex Burkhead and run-stuffing defensive end Lawrence Guy while re-signing Hightower, behemoth defensive tackle Alan Branch and nickel safety Duron Harmon.

As if that's not impressive enough, they will also have the services of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the postseason following December back surgery.

Belichick's current roster is significantly stronger than the one that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy a month ago.

Just imagine the possibilities if he succeeds in playing the NFL like a fiddle, flipping backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppoloto Cleveland for a windfall of draft picks.

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