Patriots won't use franchise tag on Dont'a Hightower

Dont'a Hightower is free to go to market -- for now.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that the Patriots linebacker will not be slapped with the franchise tag, per sources informed of the situation. If he isn't re-signed in time, New England's Super Bowl LI game changer will hit free agency when the new league year opens March 9.

"Hightower is a guy who is very much in (the Patriots') plans, a guy they would like to retain," Rapoport said Tuesday on Up to the Minute. "It's just that the franchise tag is much too high to even consider giving him that on a one-year basis."

It's not entirely surprising after weeks of whispers that Hightower was no guarantee to receive the tag. Losing him, though, would be costly for a Patriots team with a flock of defensive free agents including Jabaal Sheard, Logan Ryan, Alan Branch, Chris Long and Duron Harmon.

Hightower is a three-down 'backer who can do it all. The 26-year-old turned in a dominant campaign this past season, finishing as the league's second-rated pass rusher from the inside linebacker position, per Pro Football Focus.

After an early season knee injury, Hightower roared back to anchor New England's defense from wire to wire. When it mattered most, his strip-sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the Super Bowl helped spark New England's epic comeback against Atlanta. Two years prior, in Super Bowl XLIX, it was Hightower who also made the goal-line stuff of Marshawn Lynch to set the table for Malcolm Butler's game-clinching pick for the Patriots.

It's hard to imagine Hightower somewhere else after the Patriots also traded away linebacker Jamie Collins during the regular season.

New England, though, refuses to panic. Perhaps that boils down to an in-house confidence that Hightower can be re-signed before free agency kicks off. Or maybe the Patriots lose key players every season and still find a way to finish high atop the AFC.

It's one or the other: Choose your own adventure.

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