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A huge factor that will influence Patriots CB Malcolm Butler’s free agency

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It’s not being talked about enough, but a crowded 2018 free agent class could help nudge Malcolm Butler in New England’s direction.

NFL: New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Deluge

Noun. Pronounced: “del-yooj”

1. an overflowing of the land by water

2. a drenching rain: flood

3. an overwhelming amount or number

Merriam-Webster, the world’s foremost phonetic authority since 1828, and recent unexpected Twitter shade-thrower, will need to add a fourth definition for deluge in their next edition:

4. Coverage regarding the scenarios and contract status of Malcolm Butler.

An array of synonyms could be used to describe the inundation of reports, reactions, and predictions surrounding Malcolm Butler’s contract situation this offseason. It has been nothing short of a barrage -- a cascade -- an avalanche of information. Certainly no stone has been left unturned.

Naturally, every sliver of news has been dissected and examined to its fullest extent, then assigned to a narrative. Each narrative, with its own angle and spin, has then been stuffed with speculation to fill in the gaps created by the deficiency of hard facts. Butler couldn’t post an Instagram photo without his in-flight attire being portrayed as a sign of bitterness and resentfulness as he bailed on Foxborough for a stint in The Big Easy.

Now firmly supplanted in the rift between free agency and the draft, the likelihood we experience any further fireworks in the Butler situation has diminished. A spark from recent trade rumors involving Richard Sherman lit a momentary fire under the story again last week, only to be extinguished quickly by ESPN’s Mike Reiss.

So we wait — sitting dormant while Butler’s April 21st RFA tender deadline approaches. Yet as much as the odds that Butler plays for the Patriots this season seem to be increasing, his future in Foxborough beyond 2017 remains a mystery.

Assuming Butler signs his RFA tender and plays out the 2017 season in New England, and should he avoid the franchise tag, he will finally hit unrestricted free agency next March. If he manages to stay relatively injury-free, all signs point to a big pay day for the two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback. Right?

It may not come that easy.

Yes, the cap is rising significantly each year. Yes, the cornerback market has been recently infused with new high-dollar deals signed by Desmond Trufant, AJ Bouye, and Stephon Gilmore. However, unlike the sparsely populated group of free agent cornerbacks in 2017, the 2018 class is looking significantly more congested.

While Bouye and Gilmore landed top-of-the-market deals this offseason, Logan Ryan was the only other corner to ink a contract with an average per-year value north of $10 million. This forced a few quality corners (Prince Amukamara and Morris Claiborne for example) into a position where they felt their best move was to sign a one-year deal in hopes of improving their stock for next offseason’s free agency period.

Here are the notable corners hitting free agency in 2018, along with their ages at the start of the 2018 regular season:

  • Vontae Davis - 30
  • Xavier Rhodes - 28
  • Trumaine Johnson - 28
  • Jason Verrett - 27
  • Jason McCourty - 31
  • Morris Claiborne - 28
  • Prince Amukamara - 29
  • Deshawn Shead - 29

It’s a solid group that may not knock your socks off on paper, but is leaps and bounds deeper right now than the 2017 class was at this point last offseason. And the 2018 list will likely grow.

Here are a few names you just might recognize that, given their current deals and situations with their teams, could easily become cap casualties heading into next offseason.

  • Richard Sherman - 2018 cap savings - $11 million, dead money: $2.2 million.
  • Aqib Talib - 2018 cap savings: $11 million, dead money: $1 million.
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - 2018 cap savings: $6.5 million, dead money: $2 million.
  • Byron Maxwell - 2018 cap savings: $10 million, no dead money.
  • Sean Smith - 2018 cap savings: $8.5 million, no dead money.
  • David Amerson - 2018 cap savings: $5.5 million, no dead money.

Adding just one or two of these names to the 2018 free agent pool, along with the Butler, who will be 28 at the start of the 2018 regular season, changes the entire dynamic of the group. As many as five or six shut-down corners could be available. Just how much will a former undrafted free agent from Western Alabama stick out? More importantly, with all of this talent available, how many suitors will there be?

This will all come on the heels of a 2017 offseason that has seen teams spend far less than anticipated following a rise in the salary cap, and an incoming cornerback draft class that some are calling one of the best ever.

Knowing the lifespan of the average career in the NFL, players should do everything they can to maximize their earnings while they have the ability to. If Malcolm Butler wants to bet on himself, and he is willing to shoulder one more season of injury risk, he should do what he feels is best for himself and his family.

However, two questions remain. Where does Malcolm Butler rank within this 2018 group, and with its crowded nature, just how much can Butler’s “bet” pay off?

Go ahead, follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @b7phillips