By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Even when the world knows that you can’t predict Bill Belichick’s roster decisions, the Patriots head coach still manages to shock the world.
The latest example came in the form of a report on Thursday morning which said the Patriots are considering making a trade for receiver Brandin Cooks. But it’s not so much the potential acquisition of a young, explosive wide receiver that has the football world going bananas. It is instead the cost that it would take to acquire Cooks.
That cost would be one Mr. Malcolm Butler.
It’s surprising for a number of reasons. For one, the Saints were reportedly looking for just a first-round pick in exchange for Cooks as recently as last weekend, so the potential for the team to land a top-flight cornerback for the 23-year-old receiver is a bit of a development.
But to a greater degree, the part that will remain difficult for many in this region to comprehend is why Belichick would be seemingly so eager to ship Butler out of town. Butler has been the consummate professional, emerging out of the middle of nowhere (The University of West Alabama is located in the town of Livingston, which has a population of 3,500 people) to make the most memorable play in Super Bowl history. He kept working, intent on not being known only as a one-hit wonder, and he’s since become one of the best cornerbacks in the entire NFL. He’s been greatly underpaid and has not said one peep in a public forum. He hasn’t missed a game in the past two years. And he helped the team win a second Super Bowl in three years just one month ago.
Essentially, Butler has been The Perfect Patriot™.
Yet Belichick was willing to pay top dollar to an outsider in Stephon Gilmore, and he appears willing to send Butler packing.
How could this be? Well, let’s examine.
We know this: Belichick is almost never caught off guard. The man has plans, backup plans, tertiary plans and emergency plans. So nothing taking place on this day is new to him. That much should be clear by now.
With regard to Butler, he has been vastly underpaid. We know that the Patriots and Butler remained far apart in their negotiations, to the point where a long-term agreement seemed unlikely enough for the Patriots to place the first-round tender on Butler. We don’t know exactly what went on in those negotiations, but consider two things.
One: Butler’s agent, Kevin Simpson, is not exactly Drew Rosenhaus. His NFLPA profile page says he’s negotiated two NFL contracts in his career.
Second: An MMQB story from late January detailed the ruthless nature with which Belichick negotiates contracts.
“They’re a nightmare for agents,” one agent told The MMQB, “because you know that if your player wants to play for the Patriots, they’re going to take the discount.”
These frustrated agents recall a go-to refrain from the 64-year-old coach/executive who delivered four Super Bowl titles to a once-moribund franchise.
“It’s simple,” Belichick says in his curt monotone, according to men who have been on the other end of the phone. “Does your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesn’t he?”
With those four Super Bowl titles becoming five Super Bowl titles in the time since, would Belichick’s negotiating stance get any softer?
But even with the impasse in contract negotiations being established, Butler has been enough of a humble, hard worker in his three years to show that he’d likely be willing to play out 2017 for just under $4 million before striking it rich as an unrestricted free agent next year. And that’s a safe bet to be true.
But here’s the thing: If Butler walks as a free agent next year, Belichick has nothing to show for it. A possible compensatory selection a year after the fact wouldn’t help much.
And so, like Belichick does with just about every person not named “Thomas,” the coach sees Butler as an asset. He knows how difficult it can be to have a top-flight cornerback. He knows that a top-flight cornerback at a reasonable rate in 2017 would get him something. He knows that he and this top-flight cornerback will never see eye-to-eye in terms of a long-term contract.
And so he knows that trading that top-flight cornerback now instead of waiting to lose him as a free agent would benefit his team in the long run.
This is, after all, a man who traded Jamie Collins in the middle of a season, seemingly in order to get a compensatory pick one year earlier than he would have if he waited to lose Collins as a free agent.
So that’s the crux of the “why” regarding this potential deal. But as it relates to the team on the field, the mere discussion of a Butler trade should represent a major Belichick endorsement of Eric Rowe. Belichick traded for Rowe just before the start of last season, and the young former second-round pick worked his way into more playing time as the season wore on.
With Logan Ryan set to depart New England via an overpay in free agency, it would appear that Belichick is comfortable with going into next season with Gilmore at one cornerback spot and Rowe starting in the other. (Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones are also on the roster for 2017.) Gilmore has two more years of NFL experience than Butler, but Gilmore is still five months younger.
The idea of being willing to trade Butler should not necessarily be an indication of Belichick making a negative assessment of Butler as a player. Given Belichick’s usage of Butler to go 1-on-1 against the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham, it’s safe to say that Belichick thinks rather highly of the kid he discovered and groomed. Instead, it likely is more an indication that Gilmore can be a reasonable facsimile of Butler for a controlled cost for the foreseeable future. In that sense, it’s not unlike the team’s willingness to swiftly replace Wes Welker with then-free agent Danny Amendola back in 2013.
On the other side of the ball, there is a need for some youth at the receiver spot. Though the team was fortunate regarding injuries in 2016, that same type of dependability can never be taken for granted in the NFL. That’s especially true given that Julian Edelman will be 31 at the start of next season, Danny Amendola will turn 32 midseason, and Chris Hogan will turn 29.
Malcolm Mitchell represents the youngest of the bunch, and he’ll turn 25 in July. Cooks is 14 months younger than Mitchell, and he has 16 more touchdowns at the NFL level, 183 more receptions at the NFL level, and nearly 2,500 more receiving yards at the NFL level. Cooks will bring a major boost to an already-potent offense — one that lacked Rob Gronkowski for much of 2016 and lacked Brady for four games but still ranked third in scoring, fourth in passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns.
One might look at those offensive rankings and not consider it a weakness of the team. They would be correct. But clearly, given the age and injury risk of his receiving corps, Belichick is looking ahead.
And contractually, it makes sense. Cooks is due less than $2 million in 2017, and the cost of exercising his 2018 option would be roughly $8.5 million. That’s more than a fair price for a receiver who’s topped 1,110 yards in each of the past two seasons.
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT …
If that was all too much to go through, here’s the bullet-point list:
1. We assume Butler and the Patriots were so far apart in negotiations that a long-term agreement became close to impossible.
2. We assume Belichick considers Gilmore a worthwhile replacement for Butler for roughly the next three years or so.
3. We assume Belichick believes in Rowe enough to elevate him to a starting role.
4. We assume Belichick sees Butler as an asset that can land the Patriots a gamebreaking receiver in Cooks.
Still, the trading of a Super Bowl hero with a backstory that is literally fit for Hollywood would be a shocking move, even by Belichick’s own standards.
Unless, of course, this is all part of the negotiating process with Butler. If so … then Belichick’s even cagier than everybody thought.