My first reaction to the potential trade of superstar cornerback Malcolm Butler to the New Orleans Saints was straight forward, “Please no. “
After signing Stephon Gilmore to a monster deal, the defense was primed for two more years of dominance. The Gilmore move made so much sense. Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent, meaning the Patriots hold total control over his actions for at least the next year. That could be extended further with the use of the franchise tag in the 2018 season (assuming there isn’t a certain back-up QB still on the roster…). From the outside, it looked like Belichick was modeling his defense after the two most dominant defensive franchises of the last decade: Seattle and Denver. Both of those teams have a combined four Super Bowl appearances in the last five years. While the average fan might focus on the sack totals of Von Miller and Michael Bennett, the value in their defense starts with the defensive backs.
Denver and Seattle boast two of the best and deepest defensive back units in the league. The result is a match-up nightmare in a league defined by its quarterback play. Defensive backs force turnovers, break up passes and lead to game-changing interceptions. But they are so much more than that. A good cornerback disrupts the rhythm of the offense. Rather than throwing to a dependable WR1, the quarterback is forced to hold the ball longer and go through his progressions. This means more time for the defensive line to get home. The reason Von Miller and Seattle star pass-rush rack up so many sacks year after year is because of this effect. The longer a quarterback holds the ball, the greater their chance of being sacked and causing negative yardage. You saw this happen last season when the Patriots lost to Seattle at home. But the prime example is the AFC Championship game in 2016. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback to ever step onto a football field, was hit twenty(!) times during that game. He was under so much pressure he missed a wide-open Gronkowski to tie the game on a two-point conversion. While Von Miller, Shane Ray and Demarcus Ware were teeing off all game on the Patriots’s offensive line, the cornerbacks insured that Brady was holding the ball longer than usual or else risk an interception.
Now the Patriots are primed to create a similar defense with two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore. However, Butler is not happy with the situation.
I honestly can’t blame him.
Butler made the defining play of the decade with an interception to win Super Bowl XLIX, as an undrafted free agent rookie. He then went on to start back-to-back seasons at cornerback, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2015 and culminating in another Super Bowl victory in 2016. During that time-span, Butler made $1.5 million off his rookie contract. That’s a lot of money. I know fans hate to hear players wine about pay when they are making more in a year than the average American will in a lifetime. But in the relative world of NFL contracts, Butler was making spare-change. For comparison’s sake, Stephon Gilmore made more in his rookie season as a Buffalo Bill then Butler did in three years and two Super Bowl victories. Now, that same player is rewarded with a five year, $65 million/$40 million guaranteed deal, which is essentially the contract Butler was expecting this offseason. Instead, Butler will be lined up across from a new-comer making over four times his yearly salary. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
From the human side of things, I get Butler’s frustration. But that’s the business of football. Unfortunately, football is not all a meritocracy. Butler has been an incredible player, but he (and to a greater extent, his manager) have forgotten the downside of being an undrafted free agent out of college. Butler is at the mercy of the team that took a chance on him. In some ways, this trade-off is fair, if not palatable for Butler’s camp. As an undrafted free agent, Butler is going to be making much less than other league players over the course of his young career. While his superb level of play guarantees he will be in for a monster contract from some team, if not New England, it’s going to take longer to get to that point. The Patriots took a chance on Butler. Without that opportunity, he would not have been in the position to make a defining Super Bowl play, or the chance to win three Super Bowl rings in four years. Butler has earned everything he could have asked for at this point: a pro-bowl nod, a $3.5 million contract bump, and recognition as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. But he needs to be patient.
I don’t begrudge Butler for wanting to get paid. There is so much money floating around the NFL it’s criminal for a two-time Super Bowl Champ to be making less than rookies coming into the league. But that’s the business. That’s the chance Butler took coming into the league as an undrafted free agent. How his agent has handled the situation is entirely unacceptable and creating a toxic atmosphere for a return to the Patriots in 2017. It is almost unavoidable at this point that Butler, should he remain with the team into the regular season, will go the way of Jamie Collins. Like Butler, Collins could no longer contain his frustration over the lack of a contract he felt he was due.
I believe Bill Belichick had every intention of signing Malcolm Butler to the contract he deserved—just not this season. As a restricted free agent, the Patriots could bring in a Pro-Bowl cornerback in Gilmore while hanging onto Butler for only $3.9 million. That flexibility allowed them to resign Hightower, Branch and some other key contributors, while shoring up the defensive line and finding a replacement for Martellus Bennett. For all of Butler’s worth, these moves were equally crucial to ensuring the Patriots’ sustaining a competitive roster for the foreseeable future.
What I would like to see happen: Work things out with Malcolm Butler. From everything I have heard and read about Butler, he seems like the perfect Patriot: hard-working, humble and focused on the team’s success. His agent, on the other hand, seems to have created a volatile atmosphere that will end up hurting both parties involved. It can be impossible to negotiate with a person that has their mind set elsewhere, which is why I believe Belichick will eventually trade Butler or let him walk after the 2017 season (although there is always the franchise tag). However, this team is built to win now. The Patriots are always in a prime position to contend for the Super Bowl, but there is a real sense of urgency now that Tom Brady is cresting the age of forty. My greatest fear is the Patriots making a move similar to what happened in Carolina last season when the Panthers let Josh Norman walk out the door. I don’t believe Josh Norman was worth the money the Redskins paid him, but he was essential to the function of the Panthers. Without Norman, the defense lacked its edge and the team lost a vital member of its morale.
Can the Patriots win without Butler? Of course. In the absence of Butler, Gilmore takes the center stage as CB1, and the team has depth with Eric Rowe and Cyrus Jones. But the defense has much more to gain with Butler in the line-up. This team is stacked on offense with the addition of Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen. But it is still a win-now team, and recent transactions point towards Bill Belichick feeling the same way. The Patriots have no 1st or 2nd round pick in the upcoming draft, which will impact their depth in future years. Tom Brady is on his last or second to last season (which is supported by the recent reluctance to part with backup Jimmy Garoppolo). Removing Butler from the equation would immediately dampen the potential to win another Super Bowl in 2017. Assuming the Saints are not willing to part with the 11th overall pick, the smartest move would entail finding a way to keep Butler content for one more season, with the potential of a long-term deal to follow. For that to happen, Butler and his camp need to calm down the rhetoric. It’s not too late for both parties to find common ground, but there is no way Bill Belichick is repeating the first half of last season by allowing a malcontent player into the locker room.