When Malcolm Butler broke up his first preseason passes as a member of the New England Patriots, the undrafted cornerback did so in a No. 29 jersey that he shared with undrafted running back Roy Finch.
It was Aug. 7, 2014 at FedEx Field.
Then as the roster whittled and went without sixth-round pick Jemea Thomas, Butler switched to No. 21. Those digits remained for the franchise’s eventual All-Decade selection through 70 games, 10 interceptions and a pair of Super Bowl victories. And later, those digits remained through stops with the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals.
But Butler is now is in a blue No. 4 at organized team activities.
“It was what was available,” Butler told reporters following Tuesday’s practice. “And I do this for a lot of things — for the Patriots, for myself, for my family.”
Butler retired last September due to personal reasons. Released from the reserve list by Arizona in February, the former Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro re-signed with New England in March on a two-year deal that includes $750,000 in guarantees.
“I’m feeling good, feeling fresh — well, I was until I got here and started running around and stuff like that,” Butler said. “But rejuvenated. I took some time off to handle some things and I’m back here now.”
Back is Butler. Gone is his longtime NFL number to safety Adrian Phillips. Ahead is one that was last assigned to quarterback Jarrett Stidham, whom the Las Vegas Raiders acquired via trade last month.
“It’s just a different beginning,” Butler said. “I know I wore No. 21, but I just wanted something different. A different beginning, new start, fresh start, so that’s why I say No. 4 is for everything — for family, for the Patriots, things like that.”
Butler acknowledged what a year away can take away. At 32, the West Alabama product finds himself as the oldest member of New England’s cornerback depth chart. He also finds himself closing in on 6,000 defensive snaps.
But some things stay unchanged.
“Malcolm works hard like he always has,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told the media during his Tuesday press conference. “Very competitive, out there scrapping for balls. His aggressiveness, play style — we’re not in pads, but yeah, looks like it’s about the same.”
“Malcolm’s the same player, in my opinion,” added veteran slot corner Jonathan Jones. “He comes out, he works hard, and just wants to get better every day. He hasn’t lost that itch for the game.”
Or the for.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove, especially to myself,” Butler said. “And if I do to myself, I prove it to my teammates at the same time. So I’m working hard every day and trying to stay focused where I am.”