By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots have 14 players on track to hit unrestricted free agency in 2017. That's almost a quarter of the roster, so clearly, they have a lot of work to do in shaping the 2017 team. We're taking a look at the most important pending free agents on the team, the players who will make a big impact on the complexion of next season's Patriots roster whether they stay or go.
In 2017, it begins and ends with linebacker Dont'a Hightower - so it would be prudent to start this quaint little free agency series with him.
What did he make in 2016? The last year of Hightower's current contract was simple. He earned $7.751 million in cash and produced the same number for a cap hit.
What's his value on the open market? At or near the top - for an inside linebacker. There's no way Hightower would command an AAV in the neighborhood of the money that elite edge rushers like Von Miller and Justin Houston have earned, but it's plausible that the Patriots make him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the National Football League.
The baseline for a new deal for Hightower would likely be that of his former teammate, Jamie Collins. The Cleveland Browns signed him to a four-year, $50 million deal that included $26.4 million guaranteed. The high end of an inside linebacker deal is the Panthers' Luke Kuechly, who signed a five-year deal worth about $61.8 million with just over $34.3 million guaranteed.
It's unlikely that the Patriots would match or top the contract given to Kuechly. They may have to start with what Collins got, and perhaps offer a little more. Something in the range of four years, $52 million, and $30 million guaranteed could be in play.
What's his value to the Patriots? Hightower is one of the most important players on the Patriots defense, arguably the most important. He is their defensive captain and signal caller and has come up with a game-changing play in the fourth quarter of each of his two trips to the Super Bowl. Further enhancing his value to the team is the lack of depth of talent behind him; Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts would be the team's linebacking corps should they lose Hightower.
Even if Bill Belichick saw someone like Roberts or Van Noy as a potential replacement for Hightower, there's little to no chance either of those guys would be ready to take the reins as soon as 2017. The Patriots are surely going to need to find Hightower's replacement eventually, but the likelihood is that guy is not on the roster - or available elsewhere on the free agent market - right now.
Considering his role on the defense and importance to the group, Hightower is not just a player whom the Patriots could replace with a cheap plug-in or quick fix. To maximize Tom Brady's final years, they need to keep Hightower around with their current situation.
Why wouldn't the Patriots keep him? Durability issues. Hightower has missed 11 starts in the last three seasons and his only full season was in 2013, but he did not start every game. The Patriots may not want to pay top-of-the-market money for a player who can almost surely be penciled in to miss some time and have his health managed throughout the course of the season. On the other hand, other teams may view Hightower the same way. His durability is a legitimate risk in making him among the highest-paid players at his position.
Conclusion: If the Patriots want to avoid another rebuilding period on defense in the final 3-5 years of Brady's career, they need to keep Hightower around as an anchor. He would not be the first player whom the Patriots sign to a top-of-the-market contract due to a lack of leverage and no viable replacements behind him; Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins are two such examples.
As an inside linebacker, Hightower is certainly a bit more expensive than a nose tackle or offensive guard. But he's also a stalwart for a defense that would have a huge leadership void without him, and you could reasonably argue that they don't win two of the last three Super Bowls without him. Hightower is a leader and a winner, and deserves to be paid that way.
Honorable mention: Barkevious Mingo. He's here as the only other Patriots linebacker who's set to become a free agent. You can file Mingo under the "Players that Belichick was hoping could be a cheap replacement" department. The former Browns linebacker contributed on special teams at times for the Patriots, but he's light years from a viable option to replace Hightower. He's good as gone.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
for more features.