There was a lot to like about the Patriots offseason moves before the news of Dont'a Hightower returning broke on Wednesday afternoon. Bill Belichick took an aggressive approach to the new league year and added some flashy names and used big bucks in some cases to do it.
Each of the moves from the early days of free agency made sense, but by far the most important development of the first week came Wednesday afternoon when Hightower's agents announced the linebacker would be staying in New England for four more years.
Taken individually, the earlier transactions are largely a wash. Stephon Gilmore replaces Logan Ryan, which would be an upgrade, but also potentially Malcolm Butler. Losing Butler would likely require some additional moves to keep the corner situation a positive one.
Of the three trade acquisitions – Dwayne Allen (Martellus Bennett), Kony Ealy (Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long) and Brandin Cooks – only Cooks represents a significant upgrade. In fact it could be argued the other two are lateral moves at best (Ealy) and slight downgrades (Allen) at worst. Make no mistake, all solid moves, but not necessarily improving anything over the situation last year.
Losing Hightower would have put the defense in a net loss as Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Freeny are not capable of filling his shoes.
Hightower has developed into much more than a quality player in the Patriots defense. He's a captain and leader at a position that's vital as the unit's signal caller. He's a playmaker who seems to save his best for the most important moments. And off the field he's a respected veteran who should get a lot of credit for helping to keep things in tact a year ago in the aftermath on the Jamie Collins trade.
Don't let that last fact slip by as some trivial fact. Players in the locker room were equal parts stunned and borderline outraged when Collins was sent packing. Devin McCourty called Collins the team's best defensive player and others echoed those sentiments. Hightower was quite close to his former teammate, and watching Collins depart could easily have led him in a different direction.
Both are athletic young linebackers who were looking to cash in as free agents. It would have been understandable if Hightower gave up on his future in New England after watching his friend leave, but instead he continued to lead and played exceptional football down the stretch and in the playoffs.
That kind of reaction doesn't go unnoticed just among the coaching staff. Hightower's response was surely recognized by his teammates, and the results obviously saw the unit continue to grow and ultimately end with another Super Bowl title.
The organization deserves some credit as well. They let Hightower hit the open market and gauge his value on his own, not afraid of what might happen in free agency. The team did so knowing it had a large amount of cap space to work with and therefore was likely relatively certain that it would be able to retain the linebacker if it wanted to.
In the end Hightower likely didn't receive the offers he thought he might, probably due to his injury history. He's played in all 16 games just once in his career and missed 11 games over the last three seasons including three in 2016.
So, despite dalliances with Pittsburgh, Miami, the Jets and Tennessee, Hightower remains in New England and that's by far the most significant offseason development for the Patriots thus far.