The Patriots have a handful of priority players that will become free agents after the 2016 season, including edge defender Jabaal Sheard, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan.
There's a very real question of which player will get a contract extension first?
New England has a history of signing surprise extensions before expected players receive their contracts. Simple adjustments for those under longer-term contracts, like those received by quarterback Tom Brady and safety Patrick Chung this offseason, come first. Adding years for previously-fringe players like running back Dion Lewis and guard Josh Kline come next.
But when it comes to the big ticket extensions, the Patriots have not had so many key contracts come up at the same time. There's no expected method to the upcoming madness.
ESPN's Mike Reiss has an interesting note on Butler, who is only going to be a restricted free agent, that could jumpstart negotiations.
"Butler has told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks."
Butler is very much deserving of a contract extension, even though he's not the best player looking for a deal. Cornerback is a very important position in a Bill Belichick defense and great ones are difficult to find. Hightower, Collins, and Sheard all hold claim to being better individual players than Butler, but perhaps the positional value can trump individual acclaim.
So does Butler get the first contract extension? It's possible. The fact that the Patriots have control of Butler via that restricted season could help the two sides find a more-team friendly middle ground. New England would probably rather get Butler locked up now before he has another season as a starter to further increase his value.
A further case for Butler getting the first extension comes with how the Patriots addressed the past few offseasons. They added linebacker Shea McClellin as a hedge in case either Collins or Hightower leaves, and they added edge defender depth with Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers, and Rufus Johnson last year. The potential behind Butler is less impressive and could imply that the Patriots understand Butler's immediate and future value to the defense.