Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots and Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints have grown well-acquainted with each other over the years. And while the two sides have not met for a regular-season game since 2013, they’ve kept within shouting distance through joint practices – as well as trades.
Another swap may be imminent.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler is slated to visit New Orleans on Thursday, as Brett Martel of the Associated Press first reported Tuesday. But the restricted free agent, whom New England placed the first-round tender worth $3.91 million on, doesn’t appear to be headed there to formally sign an offer sheet.
The Saints would be required to send their original first-rounder – No. 11 overall – to the Patriots if New England opted not to match a proposed pact.
That is a steep price to pay – both in terms of draft capital and financial capital – given that the 27-year-old Butler would most certainly hit unrestricted free agency long before a future first-round pick’s contract reaches its fifth-year option.
Now three seasons removed from arriving in Foxborough as an undrafted tryout, Butler has started all 32 games for New England over the last two. The 2015 Pro Bowler has broken up 32 passes, intercepted six, and logged 130 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble over that span. In 2016, he earned a base salary of $600,000 while playing the second-most snaps on defense behind only captain and free safety Devin McCourty.
His play has far outweighed his pay. He has been the No. 1 cornerback and a top-10 one. Yet he finds himself with little leverage to show for it.
Butler’s tender with the Patriots remains unsigned. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder cannot be traded to another team until it is. But a team like the Saints could tentatively outline a more lucrative contract with Butler and his agent, Derek Simpson, before picking up the phone to discuss a trade with the Patriots.
That process is underway, according to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, who shared that the Saints hope to “strike a deal this week” before opening lines of communication with the Patriots regarding a trade.
It’d be far from the first time. New England and New Orleans have made four deals since Sept. 1, 2015.
PATRIOTS-SAINTS DEALS SINCE 2015
March 2017: Acquired Brandin Cooks and fourth-round pick from New Orleans in exchange for first-round pick and third-round pick.
April 2016: Acquired third-round pick and fourth-round pick – guard Joe Thuney and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell – from New Orleans in exchange for second-round pick.
October 2015: Acquired defensive tackle Akiem Hicks from New Orleans in exchange for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.
September 2015: Acquired wide receiver Jalen Saunders from New Orleans in exchange for conditional late-round draft pick.
It was just last week that Butler’s name emerged in talks with New Orleans before New England was ultimately able to land the 23-year-old Cooks, a back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver, without him. Cooks, though, was about to have his $781,599 roster bonus kick in this Monday, and time to take the best available offer on the table was diminishing.
As March wears on, it’s only fair to wonder if the same is true of Butler and the Patriots.
New England, fresh off signing former Buffalo Bills corner Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract with $40 million guaranteed, still holds the cards and a contingency plan atop a depth chart that no longer includes Logan Ryan. That being said, the war room does not currently hold a first- or second-round pick in this April’s draft after sending No. 32 overall and No. 64 overall away in the opening wave of free agency.
Would New Orleans be willing to remedy that by sending New England’s original first-round pick back the way it came? Would New England be willing to go lower than the first round when waging the reality that Butler would likely be gone a year from now, and a compensatory pick is all that’s left?
Or, might an offer from the Saints catalyze the Patriots into reaching an extension with Butler?
Whether the bridge is beyond repair or not, the third scenario seems optimistic more than realistic at this point. The Patriots don’t necessarily have to eclipse that $3.91 million if another team doesn’t. And while the rest of the clubs picking in the first round have until April 21 to sign the West Alabama product to an offer sheet, things look to be moving faster than that.
What’s known is that the Patriots put a first-round tender on Butler for a reason. Allowing him to depart for less would only come to fruition via trade. But as it stands, 71 selections will have been made before Bill Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and Co. find themselves on the clock next month.
If the Saints, or another suitor, can make a compelling case, the wait figures to be a shorter one.