After acquiring just two players over the first week of free agency, the New England Patriots have made another addition. Cornerback Malcolm Butler, who spent the first four seasons of his career in New England, was re-signed on a reported two-year, $9 million contract.
Butler left the Patriots as a free agent after the 2017 season, joining the Tennessee Titans for three years and the Arizona Cardinals during the 2021 offseason. Now, he is back where his journey as an undrafted rookie began.
So, why did New England bring him back? And what does it mean for the club? Let’s find out.
New England bolsters its cornerback depth...
The Patriots’ cornerback group suffered a major blow when Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson departed for the Los Angeles Chargers last week. While the team added Terrance Mitchell on a one-year contract shortly thereafter, the position remained a major need.
It still is — more on that in a second — but New England’s overall depth looks better with a player of Butler’s experience back in the fold. In total, the group now projects as follows:
- Outside cornerback: Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade, Justin Bethel
- Slot cornerback: Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Joshuah Bledsoe*
At the moment, Jalen Mills still projects as the Patriots’ number one cornerback. Butler, meanwhile, would probably be the starter opposite him with Jonathan Jones guarding the slot.
Obviously, though, a lot can and will change between today and New England’s season opener in September.
...but Butler should not be expected to be the group’s savior
Butler is a fine player and has more experience than any other cornerback on the Patriots’ current roster. That being said, him returning to his 2015-17 form and take over as the team’s new CB1 is an unrealistic outlook. He already is 32 years old and also sat out the 2021 season for personal reasons.
That does not mean he cannot be a contributor for the 2022 Patriots, though. Butler played some of the best football of his career before his one-year sabbatical, and still combines advanced instincts and ball skills with adequate functional athleticism.
However, he will be returning to a division that employs some elite speedsters at the wide receivers position — recent Miami Dolphins trade acquisition Tyreek Hill among them. Butler has never been a speedster, and trusting him to cover players such as Hill, Stefon Diggs or Jaylen Waddle on an island is asking for trouble.
The Patriots will therefore more likely than not keep adding to their group, either via trade or through the draft. That is especially true given that the fastest cornerback on the roster, Jonathan Jones, is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury.
Butler, meanwhile, raises the floor at cornerback. The group’s ceiling, on the other hand, will probably be determined by other players.
Butler is another cheap addition
While the full details of his contract determine just how big Butler’s impact on the New England salary cap will actually be, the expectation is that he will command a relatively small share of the available resources. The veteran defender therefore follows the theme of the Patriots’ free agency period thus far: he is another comparatively cheap addition.
New England’s other outside additions — fellow cornerback Terrance Mitchell and running back/wide receiver Ty Montgomery — fall in the same category, as do the club’s in-house re-signings. As opposed to last year, when the Patriots took advantage of a depressed market, their focus now lies on value deals.
Super Bowl LII is behind both the Patriots and Butler
Butler’s departure in 2018 came just one month after one of the most controversial decisions in recent Patriots history: head coach Bill Belichick benching him for Super Bowl LII.
The cornerback had started every game up until that one, but was mysteriously absent against the Philadelphia Eagles. He did dress and even played on special teams, but New England did not employ him on the defensive side of the ball despite the unit getting shredded by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles.
Butler leaving the team in free agency did therefore not come as a surprise, and the split actually worked out for both sides. The former undrafted rookie received a five-year, $61 million contract from the Titans while New England reached and won another Super Bowl the following season.
Still, the game against Philadelphia continued to hang like a dark cloud over Butler’s relationship with the Patriots. Obviously, however, the two sides have put it in the past.
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