Winning the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of professional football, but what follows in the offseason is what makes repeating as champions nearly impossible. No one has said it better than newly crowned champion Martellus Bennett, “You know they overpay Super Bowl champions.”
Capturing the Lombardi Trophy is a tough feat, but one team takes it home every year. Winning two in a row is a much harder feat, especially in the era of free agency. In fact, it’s only happened three times in the modern free agency era: the ’92-’93 Cowboys, the ’97-98 Broncos and the ’03-’04 Patriots.
Free agency is the main reason repeating is so difficult for the exact reason Bennett stated, Super Bowl winners get paid. The Patriots will soon see their hopes of repeating (again) diminish when free agency opens on March 9.
Look no further than the 2016 champion Broncos to see players leave for “greener” pastures.
Malik Jackson was the team’s number two pass rusher behind Von Miller. The Jaguars threw him a 6-year, $90 million deal. Danny Trevathan was a deadly cog in the scary Denver defense also. Chicago lured him away with a 4-year, $28 million contract.
Even backup, and presumed heir apparent to Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiller left because Houston waved $72 million over four years in his face. In fact, had they not matched an offer sheet from Miami for C.J. Anderson, he would’ve been gone too.
We all saw how those departures affected the team: they went 9-7 and finished 3rd in the division.
Now New England will be faced with a similar, if not worse, reality when free agency hits as key pieces on both offense and defense will be in search of new, big contracts. The names on that list include starters Legarette Blount, Logan Ryan, Martellus Bennett, Chris Long and Alan Branch.
The biggest piece, and the one who looks to make the biggest paycheck in free agency, is linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Retaining the player who made game-changing plays in two Super Bowls (the stop of Marshawn Lynch near the goal line and the strip sack of Matt Ryan) will be essential to the team’s 2017 Super Bowl hopes.
New England as an organization is known for two things: being tight-lipped when it comes to what moves they’ll make in free agency and letting big-name, fan favorite playmakers walk when they want too much money.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, Hightower turned down an extension offer from the Patriots in the $10 million per year range. If the team were to use the franchise tag on him, they’d be paying him in the neighborhood of $15 million annually. That would make him the highest paid player on a team that boasts 5-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
The Patriots were burned last time they extended their top linebacker when they shelled out $48.5 million over five years to Jerod Mayo, only to see him sustain season-ending injuries early in the second and third years of said extension. That fact may gnaw at the Patriots seeing as Hightower himself hasn’t been the picture of health, having never started every game in a season over his five-year career.
Hightower will likely be listening to all offers that will come his way, and you can probably count on a team outside of Boston being the top bidder for his services. Belichick has made a career out of replacing “unreplaceable” parts to his machine and still finding a way to win.
Even though New England has $60 million to spend in free agency, the odds of them keeping Hightower are lower than fans in the northeast would like. Fans may want to start scouting draft prospects to look for Hightower’s replacement. Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham or Alabama’s Ryan Anderson may be good fits.
The team may also dip back into the free agent pool for his replacement. Affordable options include Gerald Hodges of the 49ers or the Bills’ Zach Brown.
Knowing the Patriots front office and Belichick, if they do let Hightower walk, his replacement is someone so far off of everyone’s radar that we’ll all say, “What the heck are they thinking? That’ll never work!” And then we’ll proceed to eat crow when said player is named to the Pro Bowl a year later.