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Sunday NFL Thoughts: Patriots clear-cut Super Bowl LII favorites; Michael Lombardi thinks Malcolm Butler will stay in New England

Also: What are the Patriots going to do with all their salary cap space?

1. The NFL’s 2017 free agency period is 10 days old and has seen plenty of player movement throughout the league. The New England Patriots alone have acquired, re-signed or tendered 13 different players (although cornerback Malcolm Butler’s remains unsigned, more on that below). Other than the draft and roster cutdowns, the early days of free agency see more player movement than any other period in the league calendar.

They also have an everlasting impact on the NFL landscape; one that Las Vegas’ betting odds reflect. The latest edition, courtesy of, has New England as the clear-cut favorite to repeat as world champion. Right after the Super Bowl, the Patriots’ odds were a league-best 9-2. They have since improved to 4-1, which are by far the best odds in the NFL. For comparison, the next closest teams – the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers – are listed at 10-1.

2. With the Patriots once again favored to win the Super Bowl, let’s take a look back at those teams who have been able to defend the title:

Green Bay Packers: Super Bowls I and II

Miami Dolphins: Super Bowls VII and VIII

Pittsburgh Steelers: Super Bowls IX and X; Super Bowls XIII and XIV

San Francisco 49ers: Super Bowls XXIII and XXIV

Dallas Cowboys: Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII

Denver Broncos: Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII

New England Patriots: Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX

Not only would the 2017 Patriots be the first repeat champion since New England was able to do it following the 2004 season, the team would also join the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s as the lone franchise to win consecutive titles twice.

3. Speaking of Pittsburgh, the Steelers project to once again be one of the Patriots’ main competitors when it comes to reaching the Super Bowl. However, as opposed to New England, last year’s AFC finalists were unable to retain all of its core free agents: With Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones, for example, the team lost two vital members of its linebacker corps.

Timmons in particular will be missed, as he led the team in tackles in 2016 and played more snaps than any other linebacker on the roster. While the Steelers have talented replacement options in Vince Williams and Ryan Shazier, they not only lose statistical value in Timmons but also experience and leadership – something the Patriots were able to retain when they re-signed Dont’a Hightower, whom the Steelers had in for a visit.

4. While the Steelers lost one of its core defenders, the Patriots might lose one as well: Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler. The situation is fluid at the moment and it seems as if the restricted free agent will either play in New England or New Orleans next season. According to ex-Patriots staffer Michael Lombardi, it will be the former.

Lombardi joined The Ringer’s NFL podcast earlier this week and among other things talked about the Butler saga. He believes that the 27-year old will sign his $3.91 million tender sheet and return to the Patriots for the 2017 season before becoming an unrestricted free agent next offseason. At that point, Butler will be 28 and still a candidate to receive the long-term contract he is looking for right now.

5. With Butler potentially leaving Foxboro, one player that could replace him is the player Butler replaced as the Patriots’ number one cornerback: Darrelle Revis. The New York Jets released the 31-year old last week after arguably his worst season as a professional. With his old team still owing him $6.0 million, the veteran – per Ian Rapoport – is a candidate to play at the league’s minimum salary this season.

Could this be enticing to the Patriots? Possibly, but it appears more likely that the team turns to the talent already under contract as well as the draft to move forward – even if Butler leaves. After all, the 2017 version of Revis does not appear to be an upgrade over New England’s top boundary cornerbacks or one of the team’s top three safeties. Could Revis be a slot corner then? If 2016 is any indication, the answer is more probably than not "no".

6. The Patriots would be able to sign Butler to a long-term contract, though. After all, they still own the tenth-biggest salary cap space in the NFL. Despite a) signing fellow cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year, $65.0 million contract, b) trading for players and signing other outside free agents, and c) re-signing Dont’a Hightower, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon and James Develin, New England has $26.7 million to work with, per

And they could create even more. Restructuring or releasing wide receiver Danny Amendola to lower his $7.79 million price tag, is an option, as is extending or restructuring left tackle Nate Solder, who is on the books for $11.17 million this year. In short: If the team wants to extend Butler, it has the financial means to do just that in the upcoming weeks or months.

Of course, the Patriots could also roll unused space over into next year; and it would still have plenty even after the theoretical Butler-signing. With backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, New England could use some of its money to either place the franchise tag on him or sign him to a long-term contract. Whatever it is, the Patriots already have a plan in mind – they always do.