Coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign, the New England Patriots are headed into a pivotal offseason: they need to rebuild a roster that went just 7-9 last year and is in need of some major upgrades across the board. Part of those could be bringing back the players scheduled to enter free agency — and there are quite a few of them.
All in all, 26 players that were with New England in one way last season are in need of a new contract. Among them is interior defensive lineman Adam Butler, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 17.
Name: Adam Butler
Position: Defensive tackle
Jersey number: 70
Opening day age: 27
Size: 6-foot-4, 300 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Despite a productive five-year career at Vanderbilt, Butler did not hear his name called during the NFL’s 2017 draft. While he instead had to go the free agency route, it did not take him long to find a home: the Patriots added him to their roster shortly after the draft, and he quickly showed his developmental upside as an interior lineman during spring practices and especially training camp. As a result of his impressive performance, he made the team’s opening day roster and never looked back.
Since 2017, Butler has appeared in 70 of a possible 71 games for the Patriots — he was on the field for 63 regular season contests as well as seven playoff games, including New England’s victory in Super Bowl 53 — and registered 17.0 sacks as well as 88 other quarterback pressures. Along the way, he saw his role steadily evolve as well. After primarily serving as a sub-package pass rusher earlier in his career, he has since become a three-down defender capable of also holding his own in the running game.
What did his 2020 season look like? After spending the 2019 season as the third member of their defensive tackle rotation alongside Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton, the Patriots decided to keep Butler in the fold by placing the second-round restricted free agency tender on him. He eventually signed the $3.26 million sheet to spend his fourth season as a pro in New England as well — one that again saw him serve as a core member of the team’s interior defensive line despite being hampered by injury a bit.
Despite a shoulder injury bothering him for much of the season, Butler still appeared in 15 of the Patriots’ 16 games and was the number three interior lineman in terms of playing time: only Deatrich Wise Jr. and Lawrence Guy were on the field for more than his 481 defensive snaps (of 1,017; 47.3%), and just like his teammates was also used in more than just one role. Butler aligned in multiple D-line techniques throughout the season, and was moved around the front line on a regular basis.
Some of his usage was necessitated by the fact that the Patriots failed to properly replace the big-bodied Danny Shelton at the nose all year (his supposed replacement, Beau Allen, missed the entire season due to injury). However, New England’s coaches also were looking to create favorable matchups to take advantage of Butler’s strong technique and quick get-off especially in the passing game. As a result, he finished the year with 27 total quarterback disruptions — including 4.0 sacks.
Butler again was a core contributor for the Patriots and at times their best defensive lineman, but his shoulder ailment still appeared to impact him for much of the year. This was also reflected in his special teams usage: after averaging 95 kicking game snaps over the first three seasons of his career, he played only three of them in 2020. In light of his nagging injury and the general questions surrounding the defensive tackle depth, New England was trying to limit his exposure as much as possible.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Butler joined the NFL as a rookie free agent in 2017 by singing a standard three-year, $1.7 million contract with the Patriots. Last offseason, as noted above, he added the one-year, $3.26 million tender sheet. Not counting any additional earnings through sponsorships or playoff bonuses paid by the league and not the clubs, Butler’s purely contractual career earnings are therefore estimated at around $4.9 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Butler’s experience and productivity over the last four years will likely make him a popular target for teams in need of defensive tackle help. The Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are listed as teams potentially addressing their interior defensive line this offseason by Pro Football Focus.
Why should he be expected back? Ever since arriving in New England in 2017, Butler has been a valuable member of the team’s defensive front. Given the uncertainty the team faces — both Lawrence Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. are unrestricted free agents as well — trying to keep a known commodity like the 26-year-old in the fold would therefore be smart business from the Patriots’ perspective. Butler has proven himself against both the run and the pass, and New England needs all the talent it can get to reload its defensive front seven.
Why should he be expected to leave? As is the case with almost all free agents, the market will dictate where they end up. Butler is looking for his first big payday, and there is a chance that it will come from another team given how he was used in New England: he was more of a rotational player than an every-situation defender. While this allowed him to play some strong football through the years, he might be looking for a bigger role and increased compensation elsewhere.
What is his projected free agency outcome? The Patriots will likely want Butler back, but his price tag will be the deciding factor. Even though they do have plenty of salary cap space at their disposal, they will still not enter a bidding war with another team. Accordingly it would not be a surprise to see Butler be allowed to enter the market, assess his value, and come back to give New England the chance at a counter offer. While it is possible he returns through that process, it would not be a surprise to see another team simple produce a better offer than the Patriots’.