The New England Patriots have informed linebacker Dont’a Hightower that they won’t use their franchise tag on him, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Tuesday.
Hightower will test the free-agent market, but a source tells Schefter that the Patriots will still try to bring him back.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Hightower has made big-time plays on the game’s biggest stage. His fourth-quarter strip sack of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI was cited by head coach Bill Belichick as a game-changing play in the team’s 25-point second-half comeback.
And with 1:06 remaining in Super Bowl XLIX, he tackled running back Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line on the play before cornerback Malcolm Butler’s dramatic interception to help the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.
A 2012 first-round draft choice from Alabama, Hightower was named a Patriots captain for the first time in 2016. He finished the season with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits.
“He’s a great football player,” Belichick said the day after Super Bowl LI. “A versatile player, inside linebacker, outside linebacker, setting the edge, defensive end in passing situations. It’s very similar to what he did at Alabama and very similar to what Coach [Nick] Saban told me he would do for us: ‘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.”
Hightower turns 27 on March 12. He earned $7.751 million in 2016, as the Patriots had picked up the fifth-year option of the five-year contract he had signed as a rookie.
The Patriots have closely managed Hightower’s injury situation in recent seasons, as he has played a full NFL season only once in his career. Hightower played 67.9 percent of the defensive snaps in the 2016 regular season, 54.2 percent in the 2015 regular season and 76.7 percent in the 2014 regular season.