Just like the Dont’a Hightower unrestricted free agency watch earlier in the free agency period, the Malcolm Butler restricted free agency watch continues to drag on longer than outside observers expected. Now with limited options, the longer the 2017 NFL season goes on, the more likely Malcolm Butler is to return to New England. Staying beyond 2017, however, seems less-and-less likely.
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Butler is one of the Patriots’ best stories: everyone knows how the undrafted free agent came to New England having to tryout just to get a contract offer; He came off the bench in Super Bowl 49 to make the biggest play in Patriots’ Super Bowl history (before Super Bowl 51); Butler replaced future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Darrelle Revis as the number one (left cornerback) for the Patriots and took on the opposing number one receivers and earned a Pro Bowl selection for his 2015 season; He returned in 2016 and had another strong season as the top cornerback and picking up a second Super Bowl ring.
Butler is likeable, humble, has not had a single off-field incident, is easy to root for with his high compete level on the field and has been grossly underpaid on his undrafted free agent contract. In fact, his contract is what this whole mess as a restricted free agent this offseason is all about.
Last year, there were reports the Patriots were close to getting an extension done with Bulter. Shame on the front office for not getting that contract done before the 2016 season. As with Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis in the past, letting an All-Pro caliber cornerback hit the open market is basically a guarantee for watching another team overpay for that player.
New England had the chance to lock up all four of those cornerbacks prior to them being free agents on contracts that would look like a steal for the team within two years. The 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2011 playoff losses could have been additional Super Bowl trips or wins if the team had paid for their top cornerback rather than letting him walk (in retrospect, the 2015 AFC Championship game with Revis may have been enough of a difference if he snagged a wobbly Peyton Manning pass).
The Patriots needed to lock-up Butler last year and now have no one but themselves to blame for the acrimony and likely separation after the 2017 season. That said, kudos to Butler and his agent for leveraging a difficult situation as a restricted free agent after being an undrafted free agent into a contract next year that should set him up for life.
Butler is not generating much interest due to his price tag. To pay a 27-year old cornerback top dollar and give up a high first round draft pick is a ludicrous price that almost no team wants to pay to the Patriots or any other team. Once the first-round tender was slapped on Butler, he was most likely to be a Patriot for another season.
Butler does not owe the Patriots organization anything. As a member of the NFLPA, he has the right and obligation to try and make as much money as he can. Remember, Butler came into the NFL a year or two older than most rookies and that is a huge loss for his future earnings. Every player in the NFL should go for every dollar because every play in a game or practice could be their last.
Butler wants to be an unrestricted free agent and maximize his pay. His union, however, allows the restricted free agent status and the Patriots will take advantage of those contract rules whenever they have the opportunity. Belichick looks at Butler for four years and less than $6 million as a deal he has to take for the short-term even if it costs him in the long-term.
Malcolm Butler is going to be paid as a number one cornerback next year on the open market. His not wanting to wait is understandable where he is 27 years old and only played three years in the NFL and earned less than $2 million dollars total. This season, he can earn only $3.91 million signing his restricted tender with the Patriots, or about one-third of what his value is for the coming season.
Malcolm Butler has sniffed around looking for a contract, but it is extremely difficult for a restricted free agent to leave teams unless the team holding his rights is motivated to get rid of him. New England is motivated to keep Malcolm Butler around as a restricted free agent to team with new cornerback Stephon Gilmore and holdover Eric Rowe.
Gilmore and Rowe fit the defensive style that Bill Belichick has favored since 2012 when he moved away from his beloved 3-4 defense with zone behind it as he adapted to the pass-heavy NFL style of play. With a 4-3 defense and pressure from the edge, he can deploy two tall, long-armed cornerbacks in Rowe and Gilmore against the taller and athletic wide receivers prevalent in the NFL.
Even with Malcolm Butler as the number one cornerback these past two seasons, he did not draw A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas or Brandon Marshall in one-on-one coverage. Butler’s strengths were best displayed against smaller (normal-sized is more accurate), shiftier receivers such as Antonio Brown, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham.
Why did the Patriots break the bank for Stephon Gilmore and not Malcolm Butler? It is simple: Gilmore fits the Belichick profile for an outside cornerback being very similar in size and style of play as Aqib Talib. He has Cyrus Jones to eventually take over in the slot/inside cornerback role and envisions Eric Rowe as an eventual upgrade to the feisty and undersized Logan Ryan on the outside.
One more year of Malcolm Butler at a discount rate is a solid play for the Patriots. His role is likely less on the outside and more in the slot this season with Gilmore and Rowe in place on the edge. Jones should bounce-back in year two and eventually replace Butler after this season.
As much as Malcolm Butler has given to New England in his time here, expect 2017 to be the last New England fans see the fan-favorite in the red, white and blue.
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