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New England Patriots 2017 roster breakdown: #21 CB Malcolm Butler

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The restricted free agent will return to New England – maybe for the last time?

We have entered the deepest depths of the NFL offseason. Free agency and the draft are behind us, while minicamp and training camp won't start until early June and late July, respectively. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.

After all, until the late-August's roster cuts, players need to have secured their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.

Today, we’ll continue the series with one of the team's – and NFL’s – best defensive backs.

Name: Malcolm Butler

Position: Cornerback

Jersey number: 21

Opening day age: 27

Experience: 3

Size: 5’11, 190 lbs.

2016 review: After proving to be a legitimate shutdown cornerback during his first season as a starter, expectations for Malcolm Butler were high entering the 2016 season. The former undrafted rookie turned Super Bowl hero did not disappoint and delivered a very good performance as the Patriots’ top outside cornerback – one that ended with second-team All Pro nomination and more importantly a Super Bowl.

Butler started all 16 of New England’s regular season games, playing a position-high 1,009 of a possible 1,044 defensive snaps (96.7%; second-most on the team). He added three more starts during the postseason and was on the field for 185 of 187 snaps (98.9%); oftentimes being asked to cover opponents’ number one wide receivers. Butler generally fared very well no matter the challenge

Throughout the season, he was the target of 103 pass attempts, 56 of which (54.4%) were completed for 794 yards and four touchdowns. He also recorded four interceptions and a team-high 16 pass breakups, resulting in an opposing passer rating of 76.3 (the equivalent of consistently playing against Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum).

Butler not only had a very good season in terms of pass coverage, he also once again showed his abilities as a tackler and run defender. He registered 74 takedowns and a forced fumble while also recovering two opposing fumbles. Furthermore, Butler also added a sack and two quarterback hurries. While he was asked to do a lot, he consistently performed at a very high level.

2017 preview: Following the 2016 season, Butler entered restricted free agency. But despite looking for a long-term contract elsewhere, he will return to New England in 2017. Playing on a one-year tender that hits the salary cap with $3.91 million (12th highest on the team) the 27-year old will resume his role as one of the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks, sharing coverage of opponents’ top receiving weapons with Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe.

How exactly Butler’s role will look like remains to be seen, though. After all, New England lost last year’s top slot cornerback when free agent Logan Ryan signed with the Tennessee Titans. With no clear replacement currently on the roster, Butler – due to his quickness and being a smart and instinctive player – appears to be the prime candidate to move inside in nickel and dime packages.

No matter the role, he is projected to once again see substantial playing time and as a result targets against talented competition. Judging by his first two years as a starter, Butler will be up to the task. And he better be given that he will hit unrestricted free agency after the season and is looking for the first big payday of his career – whether from the Patriots or another team.

A stellar season would certainly help achieve that goal. Simultaneously, it would also help the Patriots’ secondary establish itself as one of the best in the league – and if only for one year. Then again, New England might be willing to invest top dollar in Butler if he is able to demonstrate his value to the team’s defense in 2017.