With the NFL Draft in the books and voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Name: Malcolm Butler
Jersey number: 4
Opening day age: 32
Size: 5-foot-11, 190 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2023 (2024 UFA)
What is his experience? 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 — and later joined the Arizona Cardinals. However, he 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 in early 2022.
What did his 2021 season look like? After three seasons as a Titan, Butler was released by the organization in March 2021 and became an unrestricted free agent. Despite not counting against the NFL’s compensatory draft picks formula it took him almost three weeks to find a new team: Butler joined the Cardinals on a fully guaranteed one-year contract at a value of $3.25 million to help replace departed All-Pro Patrick Peterson. He indeed appeared to be on his way to become Arizona’s new CB1 throughout the summer.
However, after appearing playing a combined 23 defensive snaps over two preseason games — allowing one 10-yard catch on five targets — Butler was sent to the reserve/retired list on roster cutdown day. The veteran had missed time the previous week for personal reasons, with him later stating that he was “not prepared mentally” to continue his career at that point in time. Accordingly, the former Patriot spent the entire 2021 season on the sidelines before his official release in mid-February.
What is his projected role? 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 with some starter-level upside.
Does he have positional versatility? Butler is primarily an outside cornerback, even though he received some opportunities in the slot over the course of his NFL career: during his first stint in New England he played 13.2 percent of his snaps from the slot, for example (503 of 3,825). He therefore does not project as a massively versatile player from a positional perspective; the expectation is that he will continue to play the role he has always played and only rarely leave his assignments on the perimeter of the defense. That said, he has some scheme-flexibility in that he can play both man and zone coverage shells effectively.
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 during his 2014, 2015 and 2018 campaigns, 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 is his salary cap situation? The Patriots re-signed Butler earlier this offseason via a two-year, $9 million pact that can be classified as a low-risk/high-reward investment. As far as 2022 is concerned, he will play on a $1.24 million base salary — including $250,000 in guarantees — and will also earn an additional $250,000 each in signing bonus proration and offseason workout bonus. Furthermore, his deal includes $480,000 in likely-to-be-earned roster bonuses and $2 million more in incentives. Add all the relevant numbers up and you get a salary cap hit of $2.22 million this year.
How safe is his roster spot? There are two aspects to consider when answering this question. The first is the Patriots’ depth at outside cornerback, which can be described as anywhere from “suspect” to “unproven;” Butler is the most experienced and proven player of that group and as such appears to be in a good position to make the team. Additionally, New England gave him $750,000 in contractual guarantees, $500,000 of it due this year. While he may not be a surefire lock to make the team, his spot seems pretty safe. Him successfully winding back the clock would be good news for a secondary in flux.
One-sentence projection: Butler will not just make the team but actually serve as a starter-level cornerback on the outside.