The deadline for NFL teams to assign franchise and/or transition tags to their upcoming free agents is tomorrow at 4 p.m. Eastern, and it appears that New England will not use either of its designations this year.
According to ESPN, the Patriots have informed veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower – the most likely candidate for the franchise tag this year – that they will not apply the tag to him.
This would allow Hightower to test the free agent market unless the two sides can come to an agreement on a new contract before the 2017 NFL year officially begins next Thursday (March 9). An unnamed source reportedly told ESPN that the Patriots are still interested in keeping Hightower, one of their two 2012 first-round draft picks, in a Patriots uniform.
Though frequently unavailable at various times each season due to injuries, Hightower has nonetheless become an integral member of New England's defenses over the past several years, including on two Super Bowl champion squads. He was elected a team co-captain for the first time this past season and came up with one of the most critical plays in Super Bowl LI to help the Patriots mount the greatest-ever comeback in the title game.
Hightower, who'll turn 27 on March 12, could be in line for a hefty birthday present if he finds suitors around the league. Again, New England could still come to a contract agreement with him before free agency begins next week, but chances are, the club will have to compete with others for Hightower's services going forward.