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Aggressive Patriots still have free agent business at hand when it comes to Dont’a Hightower and Malcolm Butler

March 13, 2017 GMT

After a stunningly active opening week in free agency, the Patriots merely have two matters at hand to resolve before entering next season as the easy Super Bowl LII favorites.

The Pats still need to re-sign linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they have to ensure cornerback Malcolm Butler returns after the two sides endured an unnecessarily stressful few days. Neither objective is a lay-up, but both tasks are there to be had. Execute both goals, and the Patriots should be a machine in 2017.

It really starts with Hightower, whose stint in free agency has been quiet by design. He wanted to enjoy his time on the open market, evaluate his true monetary value and decide where he’d call home. The Patriots have been involved all along, and the sides’ mutual interest never wavered in the process.

At some point, if it hasn’t reached that mark already, Hightower planned to take his best offer back to the Patriots to see if they’d counter with a competitive package of their own.

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It’s worth noting the obvious silence with Hightower’s journey, and that might be a good sign for the Patriots. Because when things are kept confidential, that’s usually when coach Bill Belichick is busiest. The Herald reported the Tennessee Titans and Miami Dolphins were in the mix last week, and the New York Jets were reportedly involved, too. But the leaks have been few and far between, which is odd considering Hightower has unquestionably been the league’s most prominent unsigned free agent since Friday.

The Patriots still have north of $30 million in cap space, so they have more than enough capital to keep their integral defensive captain. Hightower’s presumed market value could be worth $12-13 million annually, so a contract of $60 million ($30 million guaranteed) over five years wouldn’t be a shock.

The Pats got off to a screaming start this offseason by trading for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen and Carolina Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy, signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore (five years, $65 million, including $40 million guaranteed) and defensive lineman Lawrence Guy (four years, up to $19 million) and re-signing defensive tackle Alan Branch (two years, up to $12 million) and safety Duron Harmon (four years, up to $20 million).

So there’s no denying the Pats have loaded up for next season. If they have to overextend out of their comfort zone to retain Hightower, who turned 27 yesterday, it’d be hard to find any brashness in such a decision. Otherwise, they might have to look toward Zach Brown or the draft to rebuild their linebacker corps.

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They also have to make sure nothing goes off the rails with Butler. Gilmore’s lucrative deal — the biggest Belichick has ever given to a defensive player — will surely make it trickier to keep Butler beyond 2017. But it wouldn’t fit with Butler’s personality to pout, act as a malcontent or hold out as a way to protest his $3.91 million restricted free agent tender.

It sounds like the Patriots aren’t opposed to unloading Butler this offseason as a way to accelerate their return if they foresee disastrous waters in future negotiations. If Butler walks next year as an unrestricted free agent, the Pats may recoup a third-round compensatory pick in 2019.

But the Patriots’ worst-case scenario with Butler isn’t bad at all. They can align him with Gilmore for a lockdown cornerback pairing as they barrel toward their Super Bowl LII aspirations and say goodbye from there. That’s a fair cost of doing business.

In the meantime, the Pats can hope another team strikes an offer sheet with Butler by the April 21 deadline. It’d conceivably fall short of his market value because that team would also have to send the Patriots a first-round draft pick, but rivals like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dolphins and Oakland Raiders have the cap space and late first-rounder to make it work. The Pats should be thrilled to match, say, a four-year, $40 million offer sheet to keep Butler in such a scenario.

Though the Patriots’ thinking on Butler isn’t clear, it’d seem frivolous to trade him now due to his affordable price tag. With the way the Patriots roster is currently constructed, Butler is worth more on the field in 2017 unless they manage to wheel him for a high first-rounder.

But with any trade, even if Belichick is only marginally entertaining the idea, it’d be a strange strategy to sign Gilmore, unload Butler and allow Logan Ryan to walk away. That’d leave Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones behind Gilmore on the depth chart.

The Patriots will still be viewed as a Super Bowl LII favorite if they lose Hightower and Butler this offseason. But the Lombardi Trophy would be theirs to lose if they take care of both defensive stars.