Malcolm Butler saved the Patriots from Malcolm Butler

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Malcolm Butler saved the Patriots from Malcolm Butler originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com

"When you play man coverage, you have to look at your man. … When you look back at the quarterback, your man has a tendency to move in another direction."
Mike Vrabel said that on Tuesday. He said it in an effort to explain what Malcolm Butler's particular cornerbacking malfunction is.

Butler signed a five-year, $61 million free agent contract with Vrabel's Titans in the offseason.

It's fair to say neither Vrabel  nor Titans GM Jon Robinson – a former Patriots executive – envisioned an explanation of baseline principals of man-to-man coverage being necessary to help people understand why their $61M corner was giving up touchdowns at an alarming rate.

But, there they are.

And here are the Patriots, Butler's former employers, flying to Nashville Sunday to further prove they got it right with Butler. On that plane will be Stephon Gilmore, the corner the Patriots paid instead of Butler. Gilmore is playing as well as any defensive back in the NFL over the first half of the season.

But Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio won't be smug about not making the same mistake the Titans did.

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Because the Patriots tried to make the exact same mistake.

The Patriots' best and final offer to Butler prior to the 2017 season was a six-year, $66M contract with $25.5M guaranteed, according to ESPN's Field Yates.

But Butler balked. Instead of taking that offer in the summer of 2016, Butler and his agents eyed the deal Josh Norman got from the Redskins in April of 2016 – a five-year, $75M deal with $50M guaranteed.

Surely, Butler would do better than that, they believed. So Butler played out the final year of his contract in 2016 making $600,000.

By the end of the 2016 season, the Patriots had a change of heart on Butler. And they decided they'd prefer Gilmore. Having faced Gilmore 10 times since he came into the league as the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Patriots loved Gilmore's length and natural ability.

The stubbier Butler played at a more continually aggressive pitch than Gilmore but there were times he'd be physically outgunned because of his height. So Gilmore got the five-year, $65M contract with $31M guaranteed.

The Patriots put the first-round tender tag on Butler as a restricted free agent and hoped someone would bite. The New Orleans Saints nearly did. After the two teams talked about swapping Butler and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the Patriots traded a first-rounder for Cooks.

Butler then visited with the Saints. If the Saints could sign him to an offer sheet and the Patriots didn't match, New England would get a first-round pick back.

But it would be New Orleans' pick – the 10th overall – not the 32nd overall pick the Patriots sent for Gilmore.

The Saints cooled. Butler stayed, played extensively but somewhat inconsistently then was inexplicably benched from the regular defense in Super Bowl 52 after playing virtually every defensive snap all season long.

You may recall.

Imagine how different things might be if Butler just took the deal the Patriots put in front of him in the first half of 2016. Butler was one of the Big-Four defensive players the team needed to find a way to retain or be compensated for.

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They'd already sent Chandler Jones to Arizona. They were still slow-playing Donta Hightower. Nothing was moving with Jamie Collins. Butler was the one they'd keyed on.

Had he signed, would the team have had the dough to retain Hightower? It certainly wouldn't have had the dough for Gilmore. And there would have been no dalliance with the Saints for Brandin Cooks who, even though he had his limitations, was indispensable in 2017 after the injury to Julian Edelman.

How would Butler have performed after getting paid? Judging by the way things are going in Tennessee, perhaps not too well.

But maybe he would have become a different player, more stable and dependable as opposed to a boom-or-bust defender. And he surely wouldn't have felt jilted and wronged to the point where – leading into Super Bowl 52 – he'd had enough and just wanted to get to the finish line.

Even if benching Butler in the Super Bowl remains a bastardization of the "do what's best for the football team" mantra, Butler put himself in position to be benched. And all of it traces back to the contract the Patriots offered him – one pretty similar to the one he got from Tennessee – that Butler turned his nose up to.

So when the Patriots see Vrabel struggle to explain why Butler is directly responsible for seven touchdowns this season, they probably won't be congratulating themselves but thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I …"

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