Dont’a Hightower leaves without deal after visiting Jets

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2017, file photo, New England Patriots Dont'a Hightower folllows the action during NFL football's Super Bowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston. The draft remains the most significant means by which to build and fortify a franchise. Yet, as the salary cap increases exponentially each year under the 10-year labor agreement reached in 2011, the lure of veterans on the open market can be powerful. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)
The New York Jets announced Monday that they met with Hightower. –Gregory Payan / AP

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NEW YORK (AP) — Dont’a Hightower visited an AFC East rival — and left without a deal.

The New York Jets announced Monday that they met with the free agent linebacker, one of the most-coveted players available this offseason.

Hightower, who has helped the New England Patriots win two Super Bowls in his five NFL seasons, met with the Jets on Sunday and Monday, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not disclose details of the visit.

CBS Sports first reported Hightower’s meeting with the Jets on Sunday night. ESPN reported on Monday that Hightower was next scheduled to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. The NFL Network also reported that Hightower has already met with Tennessee.

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The Jets, interested in signing the big free-agent prize away from their AFC East rival, apparently tried to pull out all the stops during their meeting. ESPN reported that Hightower, who turned 27 on Sunday, was taken out for dinner by the team and given birthday cupcakes to help celebrate. “Happy Birthday Dont’a Hightower” was shown on the screens inside the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, and the team sent Hightower’s mother some Jets merchandise.

It wasn’t enough to get a deal done on the spot.

New England is also interested in bringing back Hightower, who has 372 tackles and 17 sacks since being a first-round pick out of Alabama in 2012. Hightower forced a fumble when he sacked Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, helping swing the momentum New England’s way in its comeback 34-28 overtime victory last month.

Hightower, selected for his first Pro Bowl last season, also had a big play in the Patriots’ previous Super Bowl win two years ago. He tackled Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line, and Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson on the next play to help seal the Patriots’ 28-24 win.

Hightower will likely have several offers to consider, but the Jets’ interest is intriguing. If they bring him in, it could spell the end of David Harris’ time with the team. Harris is the Jets’ longest-tenured player — he was a second-round pick in 2007 — but the 33-year-old linebacker is scheduled to count $6.5 million against New York’s salary cap this season.

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