By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Malcolm Butler is woefully underpaid. This is not a point of debate. Malcolm Butler knows it, Malcolm Butler’s agent knows it, and the New England Patriots know it.READ MORE: Pfizer Says Its COVID-19 Vaccine More Than 90% Effective In Kids
All things being fair, the Patriots would approach Butler in an effort to rectify the situation, pay him a salary commensurate with the job he’s asked to perform, thus postponing any and all acrimonious attitudes from festering with one of the team’s most important defensive players.
But of course, this is the National Football League, a place where fairness rarely applies — particularly in regard to players getting paid what they deserve. And so, quite naturally, the idea that Butler — who will only be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2016 season — “has no leverage” has become a common refrain around these parts.
“He has zero leverage,” Marc Bertrand stated rather definitively on Sports Hub airwaves. “He had a great year. One great year in the league. When has Bill Belichick ever caved to a player who’s had one great year? Ever!”
“The Pats really don’t have much incentive to make any kind of market correction where he’s concerned. That’s Butler’s reality at the moment,” the Herald’s Karen Guregian wrote. “The Patriots don’t have a habit of blinking if threatened by unhappy players, particularly those who really don’t have leverage.”
“The unfortunate truth is that Malcolm Butler has little to no leverage in the matter,” MassLive’s Kevin Duffy wrote.
“Butler reportedly wants a new contract, but the Patriots hold all the leverage in any potential discussions,” NESN’s Doug Kyed wrote.
“He doesn’t have a lot of leverage, with the Patriots able to keep him for the next two years,” Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith wrote.
You get the idea. Say anything enough times, and it becomes fact. And obviously, as evidenced by the words of the people who cover and follow the team closely, the Patriots do hold quite a bit of leverage over the undrafted cornerback out of West Alabama who is set to make $600,000 and has limited options in securing a better deal.
However … let’s not say that Butler doesn’t hold any cards here.
Obviously, understanding Butler’s personality type and his backstory and just his nature as a professional, a disruptive holdout doesn’t seem to be on the horizon for the 26-year-old. But such a disturbance might not be necessary. Understanding that Butler’s not nearly in the realm of deserving a Patrick Peterson or Josh Norman type of contract, it’s not outlandish to believe a reasonable four-year deal could satisfy both parties for the foreseeable future.
Here are at least a few reasons why Butler does wield some power in the effort to make a reasonable wage.
1. Malcolm Butler Has Leverage In … The (Lack Of) Depth Chart
When discussing Patriots cornerbacks, the word “depth chart” is a bit of a misnomer. Butler currently sits as the team’s No. 1 corner. Behind Butler, there’s Logan Ryan. Then there’s rookie Cyrus Jones. Then there’s E.J. Biggers and a group of special teamers and undrafted rookies whom the Patriots would probably prefer to see get little time on defense.
Ryan’s had an up-and-down career, shining as a rookie, taking a step backward in his sophomore season and then putting together a very solid season in 2015 in year three. But does anyone in the Patriots front office believe he’s ready to assume a No. 1 role? And how much of Ryan’s success could have been achieved if Butler hadn’t been working on the other side of the field?
There’s reason for optimism on Jones, on whom the Patriots used the No. 60 overall pick in this year’s draft, but a true championship contender would utilize a rookie in such a way to capitalize on his strengths and put him in a position to succeed, rather than place too heavy a workload on him and set him (and the team) up for failure.
The Patriots without Butler should be a scary thought for Belichick. If the Butler camp can convince the team that such a reality could come true — which is to say the cornerback would be willing to actually miss football games this fall — then it may force the Patriots’ hand to act.
2. Malcolm Butler Has Leverage In … Opposing WRs
Two years ago, when the Patriots knew they’d have some talented opposing passing attacks on the schedule, they went out and got Darrelle Revis.
Looking at the schedule this year, it’s quite clear the team is going to need some talent at the cornerback position if the goal is to win the division and compete for a Super Bowl.READ MORE: Hopkinton High School First In State To Drop Mask Mandate
Week 1, Arizona: Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Michael Floyd
Weeks 2 and 17, Miami: Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker
Week 3, Houston: DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts, Will Fuller
Weeks 4 and 8, Buffalo: Sammy Watkins
Week 6, Cincinnati: A.J. Green
Week 7, Pittsburgh: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton
Week 10, Seattle: Doug Baldwin
Weeks 12 and 16, New York Jets: Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker
Week 15, Denver: Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders
Is it a murderer’s row? No, not exactly. But that’s a wealth of talent at the wideout position on the schedule for the Patriots this season.
Butler doesn’t always draw 1-on-1 coverage on the opponent’s best WR (Logan Ryan plus a safety worked to shut down Hopkins last year), but even still, a defense without Butler has much fewer options in dealing with a true No. 1 wideout. Take the Houston game for example; if Butler wasn’t there to man up Nate Washington, then the Patriots would have likely been burned on more than one occasion. Instead, they held Houston to six points.
The bottom line is that the Patriots are going to be dealing with some talented receivers this year. If they can’t match the talent on the outside, it could make for some rough sledding throughout the season.
3. Malcolm Butler Has Leverage In … Patriots Game Tape From 2008-12
If any team knows how difficult life can be without a true No. 1 cornerback, it would be the Patriots. From the time Asante Samuel left for a huge payday to the day Aqib Talib arrived in a trade, the Patriots’ budget approach to the cornerback position proved to provide some pain over the years.
Ellis Hobbs. Deltha O’Neal. Terrence Wheatley. Leigh Bodden. Darius Butler. Jonathan Wilhite. 34-year-old Shawn Springs. Kyle Arrington. Antwaun Molden. Phillip Adams. Sterling Moore. Alfonzo Dennard. Marquice Cole.
It’s not exactly a list of All-Pros.
It came to a head in 2011, when Julian Edelman had to step in and play some crucial downs on defense. Sensing a need for change the following November, Belichick went out and acquired Talib in what could be considered a risky move. Talib was suspended at the time and carried with him a less-than-perfect reputation.
Yet the whole dynamic of the Patriots’ defense changed when Talib debuted midseason in 2012 and returned an interception for a touchdown. And when Talib managed to play just seven snaps due to injury in the AFC Championship Game that year, the Patriots’ pass defense looked just as miserable as it had from 2008-12. Ditto for the 2013 AFC Championship Game, when Talib played just 19 snaps and the Patriots’ defense got torched by Peyton Manning.
Butler is not a Darrelle Revis, and he may not quite be a Talib. But if he’s not, he’s pretty close. And the Patriots know all too well what life is like without a top-flight cornerback playing every down. They should be inspired to do whatever’s necessary to avoid a return of the not-so-golden days.
4. Malcolm Butler Has Leverage In … This Picture
OK, not really. It’s only in a fantasy land where past accomplishments earn athletes money. But what if Malcolm Butler hadn’t made one of the most incredible plays in Super Bowl history? Can you even imagine how much more annoying all of the “DeflateGate” nonsense would have been if the Patriots hadn’t stymied so many foolish opinions by winning a championship right in the middle of it?
That alone should be worth a few million dollars. Maybe even more. Robert Kraft would have to admit that.
Add it all up (and disregard reason No. 4), and the Patriots should have plenty of motivation to secure Butler beyond this year, and beyond next year. Given where Butler came from, and given that he’s only established himself as a very good NFL cornerback for one season, it’s likely that he’d be open to a deal that makes him a rich man but doesn’t drain the Patriots of their cap resources. A deal of three-to-five years that pays him between $5 million and $7 million per season might actually work for both parties.
The idea that Belichick doesn’t cave to the demands of players is rooted in a memory of some notable moves, like releasing Lawyer Milloy or Ty Law, or letting Asante Samuel walk in free agency, or trading Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, and most recently Chandler Jones. But those were all players making big-time money. The only notable instance of Belichick kicking an overperforming/underpaid younger player to the curb would be the case of Deion Branch. And considering the way that burned the Patriots, and considering Branch ended up reuniting with the team down the road, don’t you think Bill learned from that one?
The Patriots know they need Malcolm Butler. Belichick knows the Patriots need Malcolm Butler. And Malcolm Butler knows the Patriots need Malcolm Butler.
There’s a way for the cornerback to play chicken with the team a bit without rocking the ship too hard. He ought to try it and see if those scales of power don’t start to tip just a little bit. He’ll likely find he’s not getting enough credit — publicly, at least — in the leverage department.MORE NEWS: Coronavirus In Massachusetts: Today's Developments