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Hightower leaves Steelers without contract

| Tuesday, March 14, 2017, 1:18 p.m.
Dont'a Hightower is one of the most sought-after free agent linebackers on the market this offseason.
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Quan Bray (11) is tackled by Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Davon House (31) during an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday Oct. 2, 2016.
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Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant catches a pass for a touchdown in front of the Jaguars' Davon House during the first quarter Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Jacksonville, Fla.

A lengthy meeting Tuesday with Dont'a Hightower did not end with a contract being signed by the free agent linebacker.

Hightower, considered one of the top remaining free agents, spent more than six hours at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. His visit came one day after he was wooed by the New York Jets.

The New England Patriots are considered the favorites to sign Hightower, who became a free agent when they declined to use the franchise tag on him. Hightower reportedly turned down a contract extension before the season worth $10 million per year, and the franchise tag would have lifted his salary for 2016 to $14.75 million.

The Steelers, who typically don't chase big-name free agents, became interested in Hightower just days after inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.

While Hightower was meeting with the Steelers, former first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones sealed his departure by agreeing to a one-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Jones became the third Steelers free agent to sign elsewhere, joining Timmons and wide receiver Markus Wheaton (Chicago Bears).

The Steelers, who have spent the least amount in free agency among the 32 teams, entered the week $19.85 million under the salary cap, according to NFL players' association figures.

The free agent quest could take a pause Wednesday while team officials attend Wisconsin's pro day. Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who met with the Steelers during the NFL Combine, is a potential first-round draft pick.

That Hightower left the Steelers without a contract could be construed as a minor victory. At least he didn't strike a deal elsewhere while on his visit. Such was the case with free agent cornerback Davon House, who agreed to terms with the Green Bay Packers while seated outside Steelers offices. The one-year deal is worth a reported $3.5 million.

He was the second free agent the Steelers lost to the Packers in as many days. Monday night, linebacker Jay Elliott signed a contract with Green Bay after meeting with Steelers officials earlier that day.

Green Bay selected House in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, and he spent four seasons with the Packers before accepting a four-year, $24.5 million contract with Jacksonville in 2015.

But House, 27, lost his starting job in 2016 and was cut by the Jaguars after the season.

The Steelers, seeking depth at cornerback, brought House to Pittsburgh on Monday night, and he met with team officials Tuesday morning.

In the end, familiarity won for House. On his Twitter account, he wrote, “Pittsburgh is a great organization! Loved it hear (sic), but had a chance to go back home.”

Jones, the underperforming 2013 first-round pick out of Georgia, became a free agent when the Steelers declined to pick up his fifth-year option.

Jones started 35 games and played in 50 during his four seasons with the Steelers, but he never developed into a consistent pass rusher, accumulating six career sacks.

For the past two seasons, Jones was part of an outside linebacker rotation, but he lost playing time when Bud Dupree returned from injury in the second half of last season. In the Steelers' final four meaningful regular-season games, Jones played just 12 snaps. He logged 24 combined snaps in the playoff games against Miami, Kansas City and New England.

Jones' lone sack in 2016 came in the season finale against Cleveland, a game that had no bearing on the Steelers' playoff seeding.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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