By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the news broke that the Patriots agreed to a five-year deal with free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the big question quickly became: What happened with Malcolm Butler?
The Patriots were presumably working on a long-term extension with Butler that was similar to the five-year, $65 million deal (including $40 million in bonuses and guarantees) that the Patriots gave to Gilmore on Thursday, the first day of NFL free agency. Why didn’t the Patriots just offer the same deal to Butler?
Former Patriots assistant Michael Lombardi claimed to know the answer. He posted a new story on The Ringer on Thursday that went around the league to analyze teams’ free-agent deals and “Why They Did It.” When explaining the Patriots’ surprise Gilmore signing, he implied that Butler received a similar offer but simply wanted more.
“The Patriots kept trying to sign Malcolm Butler to a long-term extension and kept coming up empty – the underpaid hero of Super Bowl XLIX is looking for the moon and then some,” said Lombardi. “Who could blame him?”
Butler’s agent Derek Simpson was quick to deny Lombardi’s assertion that Butler was “looking for the moon,” which implies that the restricted free agent may have sought an extension that would make him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. Simpson told ESPN’s Mike Reiss that the two sides haven’t even discussed an extension since “last year” and that any claims of Butler demanding more money were “completely false.”
Butler himself also commented on the situation. ESPN’s Josina Anderson tweeted on Thursday night that the cornerback said he’s just “going with the flow” and “can’t tell the future.”
For a player who had never commented publicly on his contract (not even now) or held out for a new deal, it would be very un-Butler-like to suddenly ask for “the moon.” It would be surprising if talks really broke down to the point that the Patriots pulled their offer to Butler then turned around and gave it to Gilmore. It appears unlikely that the Patriots would pay Butler as much or more than Gilmore, but they still have the space to do so.
It’s also worth noting that Lombardi has commented candidly on the Patriots’ moves before, notably supporting Bill Belichick’s shocking decision to trade Jamie Collins in the middle of the season. It’s unclear how accurate Lombardi is when he makes these kinds of comments; he’s not a reporter, so he’s not necessarily used to choosing his words carefully in stories like these. His definition of “looking for the moon” could be different from Butler’s.
The Gilmore signing is where Butler’s distinction as a restricted free agent, rather than unrestricted, becomes important. As a UFA, Gilmore commanded top-of-the-market money as arguably the best cornerback available. As an RFA with a first-round tender on the table, Butler doesn’t have nearly that kind of leverage.
The only thing Butler can do to the Patriots now is to refuse to sign the tender and sit out of OTAs, training camp, etc. until they either trade him (which was heavily rumored for much of the day on Thursday) or reach an agreement with him on an extension. If Butler doesn’t hold out, the Patriots can still franchise him a year from now, and even trade him after that, like they did with Matt Cassel in 2009.
The Patriots may also be looking to franchise Jimmy Garoppolo next offseason, which would only further complicate Butler’s situation. Either way, there’s a decent chance that the Patriots get at least one season of a Butler-Gilmore cornerback tandem, which would have the potential to be one of the best duos in the league.
Still, the Patriots have most of the leverage with Butler, regardless of whatever he asked for. But now that the Patriots have forked over one of their most lucrative contracts ever to a different, arguably worse corner in Gilmore, a deal that approaches “the moon” might actually be what it takes to keep Butler.
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.