By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Last offseason, you heard time and time again that cornerback Malcolm Butler had absolutely no leverage whatsoever with the Patriots regarding his contract situation. Yet upon closer examination, such an assessment proved to not be entirely accurate.
Butler — who was due to make just $600,000 in 2016 — did have some leverage. The issue was, he and his agent didn’t use it.
It may be counterintuitive to believe that a player has less leverage as a restricted free agent as opposed to when he was still a year away from restricted free agency, but with Butler that seems to be the case. While many — if not, most — NFL teams would be willing right now at this moment to fork over a Stephon Gilmore-type of contract in order to acquire Butler’s services for the next four years, there might not be even one team willing to pay that money and give the Patriots a first-round pick. Not many teams in the league are in a comfortable enough position to be giving away first-round picks.
(A quick glance at all 32 teams’ draft position and cap space, it’s a group of at most six teams — Miami, Houston, Green Bay, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Minnesota. And even then, a team would need to decide, essentially, that it is just one cornerback away from winning a Super Bowl. Otherwise, there’s no reason to offer up $40 million guaranteed plus a first-round pick for Malcolm Butler.)
And so, in restricted free agency, the best Butler and his inexperienced agent can hope for is to get a modest bump from that $3.9 million first-round tender. However, if the Patriots match that reasonable contract offer, then it would lock Butler in to a long-term deal with the Patriots, and it would prevent him from reaching unrestricted free agent status next season. And isn’t that the point of this whole dance?
In that sense, unless there’s a mystery team that’s willing to break a 14-year league-wide trend of not signing away a player on a first-round tender, willing to give up a first-round pick and willing to spend top cornerback money right now, then it’s in Butler’s best interest to not receive an offer sheet from any NFL team. It’s unlikely to get him the money he feels he deserves.
That’s the present-day scenario for Butler, and it’s a fascinating change of course from a year ago. It was last year that I noted that contrary to popular belief, Butler did hold some leverage against the Patriots. The reasons were:
- The (Lack Of) Depth Chart
- Opposing WRs
- Patriots Game Tape From 2008-12
- The Fresh Memory Of The Super Bowl-Saving Interception
Really, points one through three were all tied in together. And all three were eliminated this year with the Gilmore signing.
First, the depth chart now has some depth. If Butler is out of the fold, Gilmore is at the top. And while it’s true that the Patriots did lose Logan Ryan to free agency, it became clear as the 2016 season wore on that Eric Rowe was gaining more and more confidence from Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Josh Boyer. Rowe played 65 percent of defensive snaps in the Super Bowl, third among cornerbacks behind Butler and Ryan. And with Justin Coleman and year two of Cyrus Jones on the roster, the Patriots have depth behind Gilmore for the Patriots. Butler no longer has the option to tell the Patriots that they can’t afford to lose him.
Point two is also covered by Gilmore, who can draw those same No. 1 receiver assignments that Butler drew all last year.
And once again, point No. 3 had to do with the Patriots’ defensive struggles without a top cornerback, notably during the “lean” years of 2008-12. (Yes, a 60-20 record with four postseason berths and a Super Bowl appearance isn’t normally considered a “lean” period. But, you know, comparatively speaking.) In Gilmore, the Patriots have a top cornerback, one who can continue the line of Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis and Butler.
And while being one year removed from the late-game heroics of Super Bowl XLIX might have given Butler some help in the PR department if he were to have held out from camp last year, the now-fresher memories of Super Bowl LI — most of which don’t involve Butler — will make that history-altering play less prevalent if the situation were to escalate this summer. The significance of that play in Glendale has not faded, but it’s now as clear as ever that the Patriots are not going to hand out any rewards based on sentimentality or past accomplishments. And when the organization operates in that manner, a large faction of the fan base tends to follow suit.
Essentially, if Butler did want to hold out this summer (or beyond), he may not have the groundswell of support behind him to pressure Belichick (and Robert Kraft) to do the “right” thing. The time for that possibility has passed.
Take it all together, and the best course for Butler to eventually get his top cornerback money is to show up to work in Foxboro this season, play for $3.9 million and maybe even win another Super Bowl. His value will be sky-high come March 2018. If he and his agent had hoped to cash in prior to that date, they missed their opportunity last year.