BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots have some big decision to make this offseason, with a number of key players hitting free agency.
Headlining that list is linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who once again proved his knack for making big plays at the biggest moments in New England's Super LI victory over the Falcons. Now he's ready to cash in on those playmaking abilities, which could mean a departure from the Patriots.
The team did not franchise Hightower, though they'd still like to have him back according to multiple reports. There will be teams lining up to sign Hightower when free agency opens at 4 p.m. on Thursday (and chatting with his agent when the legal tampering period begins on Tuesday), but ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss remains optimistic that the linebacker will be making plays for the New England defense next season.
"I think he's back, and it's not based on any inside info but this: they're going to let him test the market and see what's out there," Reiss told Steve Burton on Sunday night's Sports Final OT on WBZ-TV. "Then they'll say, 'let us know; we want you back and don't want to undersell you.' Maybe there is a team that blows him away and he's gone, but I know they're going to be competitive because they don't want to lose him."
Reiss said Bill Belichick had a similar approach with Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman a few years ago, letting both players test the market and get offers from other teams before the Patriots brought them back.
Hightower is garnering most of the free agent attention, but Jimmy Garoppolo talk has dominated the trade market. The Patriots have Tom Brady's backup signed for one more season, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported last week that the team will not trade him this offseason. That hasn't stopped the speculation, but Reiss said it's hard not to believe his colleague, who has a near-perfect record when it comes to his reports out of Foxboro.
Plus, the team won't mind having a solid backup plan as Brady gets ready for his age-40 season.
"The value that Garoppolo has to the Patriots in 2017 is greater than anything they can get in return. Tom Brady is going to be 40, and there is no historical precedence that tells you he'll be able to keep doing this. I know you're not betting against him, I'm not betting against him, and [the Patriots] aren't betting against him," noted Reiss. "But they're always going to give themselves the insurance.
"They're really high on [Garoppolo] so they're not going to just give him away. I think it's going to take two first-round picks for them to even consider it, and I don't think that's part of the discussion," he said.
While Reiss expects both Hightower and Garoppolo to be in a Patriots uniform in 2017, he doesn't think tight end Martellus Bennett will be back when the annual spending spree begins.
"There is still no negotiations with him," he said of the Patriots and Bennett. "My sense is the market will go higher than the Patriots are willing to pay, but let's not close the door just yet."
Reiss also touched on the Patriots' reported interest in New Orleans wide receiver Brandin Cooks and the departure of Chris Long. Watch the full discussion in the video above, and tune in to Sports Final and Sports Final OT every Sunday night at 11:35 p.m. on WBZ-TV!
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