Jets reportedly emerge as leading candidate to sign Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower

There could be a battle within the AFC East for New England Patriots free agent linebacker Dont’a Hightower, as the New York Jets have shockingly emerged as a candidate to land the star defender.

The Jets and Patriots appear to be leading the pack in the Hightower sweepstakes, according to CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora. He adds there are several teams monitoring the situation closely.

The Jets have spent most of the offseason selling rather than buying, as general manager Mike Maccagnan freed up nearly $45 million in salary cap space by clearing the books of overpaid veterans. They’ve also kept rather quiet during free agency, but recently signed tackle Kelvin Beachum and kicker Chandler Catanzaro. Neither player will exactly break the bank, however.

It’d be interesting to see how Hightower fit in along Todd Bowles’ 3-4 defense. He played middle linebacker for New England’s 4-3 defense, racking up 99 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. The only problem is middle linebacker isn’t exactly a glaring need. The Jets already have veteran David Harris and 2016 first-round pick Darron Lee penciled in as their starters.

Perhaps Hightower’s arrival could signal the end for Harris. He’s still a productive player, but the 33-year-old might be showing signs of slowing down. He missed his first game due to injury since 2009 and failed to record 100 tackles for the first time since 2011. More importantly, Harris will accrue a $6.5 million cap hit in the final year of his contract that the Jets could get completely off the books by cutting him.

The Jets have already said goodbye to longtime vets Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis, so it’s clear Maccagnan doesn’t think highly of sentimentality.

The other option could be utilizing Lee as an outside linebacker or edge player, but it’s uncertain what the Jets have planned for the second-year pro.

The Jets might be able to score a victory over the Patriots for a change. Even though winning the offseason hasn’t meant too much to New England during its dynasty.

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