Two key New England Patriots defenders could be gone after 2021

Dont'a Hightower #54 and Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Dont'a Hightower #54 and Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

As their 2021 season heads into its final seven games (and hopefully more), the New England Patriots may very well be without two great  defenders by the time the 2022 season rolls around.

As difficult as it is to contemplate, two Super Bowl-winning stars of the past decade may be heading to different pastures in 2022 unless they are willing to take significant pay cuts.

These are Super Bowl winners we are talking about. Yet, Father Time waits for no one, and as age and ultimately diminishing performance ensues, players on every team move on.

Let’s take a look at two players on the New England Patriots whose salaries and cap hits might require the Patriots to part ways with them or at a minimum reduce their salaries in 2022.

Two New England Patriots greats who may depart in 2022

Cap numbers are an essential part of modern NFL economics and they impact the New England Patriots as much as any other club.

In the case of two older revered players, those cap hits are significant. They would be safety Devin McCourty, who will be 35 next August, and linebacker, Dont’a Hightower who will be 32 next March.

To be clear, these are iconic stars of the New England Patriots’ second dynastic run under the incomparable Tom Brady’s stewardship.

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Each has won three Super Bowls with the aforementioned Brady at the helm and both were significant contributors thereto.

Yet, circumstances may dictate that it may be time for both to depart the Patriots in 2022. Let’s take a look at each individually.

New England Patriots’ legend, Devin McCourty

Devin McCourty has been a stalwart for the New England Patriots since his entrance as a first-round draft pick in 2010. That’s 12 seasons of service to the red, white, blue, and silver.

Those seasons include two Pro-Bowls for the former Rutgers ace. Yet, McCourty will be age 35 before next season begins.

McCourty has also been an almost perennial captain and a team leader for a decade. In addition, he’s been a tremendous Patriot in every possible positive way.

Yet, all those qualities notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that he will be retained at anywhere near his current salary or more importantly, cap hit next season.

McCourty’s cap hit this season was a whopping $11.091M. That’s a huge hit and it is unrealistic to think the Patriots would ante up near that amount for a player entering his age-35 season.

One possibility is that McCourty will stay around at a reduced salary or sign on with another team that can use his steady presence and leadership qualities on the way to a possible Super Bowl appearance themselves.

The Patriots will need that cap space to further strengthen and should McCourty be willing to take a reduced salary, then keeping him in Foxborough is a great idea.

Conversely, should he decide to hang up his cleats, what should be contemplated for about a second and then acted upon is immediately adding him to the Patriots’ coaching staff.

It’s a no-brainer. McCourty is not only an accomplished player and a lock Patriots Hall-of-Famer, but he is also a terrific person.

McCourty would be a wonderful mentor and teacher for young cornerbacks and safeties (and anyone else on the team for that matter) who needs to learn how to be a professional. None better.

New England Patriots Dont’a Hightower could be elsewhere in 2022

Another star who has served the team well during his eight-year tenure with the New England Patriots (one of which he had opted out of due to Covid), is Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower has been a tower of power in the New England Patriots linebacking corps since arriving as a first-round pick in 2012 and was looked upon as a key to the 2021 defense.

Hightower has been a Super Bowl winner and another defensive leader who picked up for older players like Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest when they retired or left the team.

Yet, his cap hit this season is also major at $12.397M in the last year of his contract. Hightower has had to work back into playing shape after opting out last season.

His totals through nine games are not great, as he has just 0.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, and 34 total tackles. Yet, it looks like Hightower is now beginning to shake off the rust and is re-emerging as his old self of late.

In Week 10 against the Cleveland Browns, he registered six total tackles to go along with half a sack. Those are more “High-light” numbers.

The likelihood is that Hightower will be offered a reduced salary for his year-32 season, and hopefully, the two sides will come together on an extension.

Otherwise, he will certainly have suitors in free agency. One likely candidate could be the surging Tennessee Titans coached by former Patriot, Mike Vrabel. Another could be the Miami Dolphins, coached by Brian Flores, former Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator.

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So that’s a quick look ahead at two expiring contracts that could free up a significant amount of cap space for the Patriots this offseason.

It would be difficult to see either player leave. But, time waits for no man as they say, and as players with high cap hits get older, the likelihood that they will depart is all the greater. We’ll see.