By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are expected to make a big splash in free agency when it kicks off at 4 p.m. on Thursday, reportedly reaching an agreement with soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The acquisition of Gilmore is a rare move for the Patriots, who are better known for waiting until the market quiets down and settling for less expensive deals.
When the Gilmore news first came out, the idea was that it meant the departure of fellow soon-to-be free agent Logan Ryan. That may still be the case, but when it was reported that Gilmore’s deal with the Patriots would be for at least $14 million per season, the questions turned to Patriots No. 1 corner Malcolm Butler.
Expected to become a restricted free agent on Thursday, Butler is on the books for a first-round tender of $3.9 million in 2016. However, another team could sign Butler to an offer sheet and send the Patriots a first-round pick as compensation if they had that much interest in Butler’s services. No RFA has been signed away for a first-round pick since 2003 when the Washington Redskins sent the New York Jets a first-rounder to sign receiver Laveranues Coles.
Butler reportedly had “brief” contract talks with the Patriots during 2016, and the Patriots’ offer “didn’t change much” between the middle and end of the season. Giardi tweeted after the Gilmore news on Thursday morning that Butler has been “pissed” about his contract situation with the Patriots since last spring.
Although Butler has not held out or even spoken publicly about his contract, it would be hard to believe that he’d be happy about playing for $3.9 million in his fourth season with the Patriots while Gilmore walks in the door making $14 million. Even if the Patriots are still interested in signing Butler long-term, it’s unlikely that Butler would sign any deal for under $14 million per season.
(Side note: Gilmore is actually six months younger than Butler; he turns 27 on Sept. 19, Butler turns 27 on March 20.)
If no other team is willing to give up a first-round pick to sign Butler to an offer sheet, then the Patriots will get at least one season of Butler and Gilmore as their top-two corners, which would have potential to be part of the best secondary in the NFL. But it would be unlike the Patriots to devote $14 million or more to two cornerbacks, let alone one.
Butler has done and said the right thing for most of his Patriots career, developed into one of the league’s best cornerbacks after being an undrafted free agent, and of course come up with some incredible plays in his young career. But until Butler signs a new deal, the news of Gilmore signing on for five years at big money could mean that Butler’s future in New England is now in doubt.
UPDATE: ESPN’s Dianna Russini tweeted that the Patriots are “considering” trading Butler to the New Orleans Saints for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. So yeah, like I said, Butler’s future in New England is very much in doubt.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.