By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Most of the focus with the Patriots’ free agency situation has been on linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and rightfully so. But Malcolm Butler should also be getting more attention – even though he’s going to be a restricted free agent, rather than un-restricted.
Once free agency begins on Thursday at 4 p.m., other teams would be able to sign Butler and other restricted free agents to offer sheets. That is a rare occurrence due to the existence of free-agent tenders, which are one-year offers for set amounts that determine draft pick compensation that a team signing an offer sheet would send to a player’s former team.
In Butler’s case, it would most certainly be a first-round tender for $4 million, which would force any team that signs him to an offer sheet to send the Patriots their first-round pick if they decline to match it. There’s also a chance that Butler and the team agree on an extension before Thursday, which almost happened a year ago.
OTHER PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS: Dont’a Hightower | Martellus Bennett | Logan Ryan | Alan Branch | LeGarrette Blount | Michael Floyd
Here’s a rundown of Malcolm Butler’s situation as he approaches restricted free agency on Thursday:
What did he make in 2016? Butler earned a base salary of just $600,000 in 2016 – one of the most ridiculously valuable contracts in the league. He’s earned just over $1.8 million in cash over his entire three-year career.
What’s his value on the market? He’s not necessarily on the open market, as an unrestricted free agent would be. But as an RFA, Butler isn’t exactly safe from potentially leaving the Patriots – certain teams may deem him valuable enough to give up a first-round pick to sign him to an offer sheet.
Butler continued to improve and emerge as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2016. He would be the No. 1 corner on most teams in the league right now. For a team with reasonable cap space that’s selecting in the lower half of the first round in April’s NFL Draft – the Raiders, Titans, or Packers, for instance – perhaps it would be worth sending that pick to the Patriots for the chance to lock up a strong No. 1 cornerback long-term.
What’s his value to the Patriots? By now, Bill Belichick must know how valuable the cornerback position is in general. The Patriots defense, in particular, struggled mightily on the back end from about 2009 to 2012 after a bad run of drafts and signings at the position. In-between letting Asante Samuel walk as a free agent and trading for Aqib Talib midway through the 2012 season, it was ugly. In recent years, a still-good Darrelle Revis and now Butler have helped the defense regain its form – and win a couple more Super Bowls.
Also, Butler would not be the first cornerback that the Patriots paid well. They signed Revis for $12 million in total cash in 2014, the fifth-most among all NFL corners, according to Spotrac. That included a $10 million signing bonus. In 2007, they paid Samuel $7.79 million, making him the third-highest-paid corner in the league at the time.
So, a lucrative contract extension for Butler would not be unprecedented for the Patriots – and they appear to be working toward that. Butler will be by far the best corner on the roster if and when Logan Ryan leaves via free agency. He has also never missed time for injury or for contract reasons, in addition to being one of the most hard-nosed competitors on the team and a defensive stalwart. If there were ever a player the Patriots would reward with a long-term deal near the top of the market, it’s Butler.
Why wouldn’t the Patriots keep him? Although RFA offer sheets are rare due to potential draft pick compensation, with Butler it can’t necessarily be ruled out. If a team came along with the dreaded offer sheet that would pay Butler closer to the range of Josh Norman’s deal with the Washington Redskins (five years, $75 million, $50 million guaranteed), then the Patriots may decide to take the first-round pick and move on from the Super Bowl XLIX hero. But if they lose the likes of Hightower and Ryan, in addition to expected losses like Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard, and Duron Harmon, it would behoove them to simply pay Butler something close to an average annual value of $12-14 million. Like Mike Lombardi said on Zolak and Bertrand last week, the Patriots have to pay someone.
Conclusion: If the Patriots played hardball with Butler over his next contract, or simply declined to give him a big contract extension, it could potentially have a ripple effect across the league with other free agents. If that guy won’t be rewarded, after staying on the field and competing hard on every play and always doing and saying the right thing, then who would? The Patriots should be looking to keep Butler with a reasonably lucrative extension, if only for the sake of their image to other players. But they should certainly do it for the sake of their defense.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.