Four years after losing him in free agency, the New England Patriots have brought Malcolm Butler back into the fold. The free agent cornerback was reportedly re-signed on a two-year, $9 million contract just two days after visiting Gillette Stadium.
With Butler in the mix, the Patriots improve their depth at the cornerback position by adding an experienced player who has plenty of quality football on his career résumé.
Name: Malcolm Butler
Opening day age: 32
Size: 5-foot-11, 190 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023
Coming off a turbulent college career, Butler did not hear his name called in the 2014 NFL Draft. Instead, he had to go the free agency route to find a home. And find one he did: New England signed Butler to a three-year contract, adding him to a cornerback group headed by the likes of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington. Despite their depth at the position, the Patriots kept Butler on their active roster throughout his rookie campaign — a decision that paid off in historic fashion.
Replacing a struggling Arrington in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks, Butler made one of the biggest plays in league history when he intercepted quarterback Russell Wilson at the goal line to preserve New England’s 28-24 victory. The play catapulted Butler to immediate stardom, and kickstarted an impressive career as a starting cornerback for the Patriots: over his four years with the team, Butler saw the field in a combined 70 regular season and playoff games and helped the team win two championships.
After getting benched in Super Bowl LII, Butler left the Patriots to sign a five-year, $61 million contract with the Tennessee Titans. He spent three seasons in Tennessee — appearing in 42 games and catching 10 interceptions — but was released in 2021. He then signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals, but eventually decided to retire for personal reasons before the start of the regular season. After sitting out the season and getting released from his contract, Butler announced a comeback.
What is his projected role in New England? Butler’s first four years in the Patriots system give us some clues about how the team might plan to use him moving forward. Back then, he served primarily as an outside cornerback in a defense using plenty of press-man coverage shells. Butler may be older now and coming off a one-year stint on the sidelines, but he still projects as a perimeter cornerback in New England’s scheme.
Where does he fit on the cornerback depth chart? With J.C. Jackson having left the Patriots in free agency, the starting outside cornerback spot opposite last year’s CB2 Jalen Mills is unoccupied. Given his experience and quite solid play before his one-year retirement, Butler currently projects as the person to fill that void. While his longer-term outlook remains uncertain and will depend on other investments made by New England, Butler at the very least offers solid depth at the position.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though he has seen some snaps in the slot over the course of his NFL career, Butler is primarily an outside cornerback. His positional versatility rejoining the Patriots therefore can be questioned: unless the team plans to move him to safety, he likely will continue to play the role he has always played and rarely leave his assignments on the perimeter of the defense.
What is his special teams value? Butler’s career in the kicking game has been a constant up and down so far. While he saw somewhat regular action on special teams in 2014, 2015 and 2018, he was a non-factor in the game’s third phase in between. In his most recent season — 2020 — Butler played four snaps as a vice player on the Titans’ punt return team. Needless to say that his value in this area can best be labeled as “limited.”
What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? As noted above, Butler returned to the Patriots on a reported two-year contract worth $9 million. The full details of the deal are not available just yet, but the belief is that it will not hit the team’s books too hard in either 2022 or 2023: the actual value against the cap might come in below $9 million, with the deal likely back. More likely than not it will follow the examples set by other contracts handed out by New England so far this offseason.
What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Despite Butler having returned to the Patriots’ secondary, the team is still very much in the market to add at least one cornerback early in the draft. The position remains possibly the biggest need on the roster at the moment, and New England addressing it on draft weekend seems likely; potential first-round selections such as Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr., Florida’s Kaiir Elam or Washington’s Kyler Gordon all should be on the club’s radar. Adding Butler does little to change this.
One-sentence verdict: The Butler reunion is a neat story, but it also significantly bolsters New England’s current cornerback depth.
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