By: Hayden Eskridge
Malcolm Butler signed his restricted free agent tender with the Patriots on Tuesday, tipping over the first domino in a possible move just ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft. The Super Bowl 49 hero has not been shy about his frustration with the Patriots organization, and his current contract situation this offseason and is open to taking snaps elsewhere in 2017. When the Patriots went out and signed Stephon Gilmore to a massive deal many envisioned a Butler/Gilmore duo that would place them amongst the league’s elite. However, the Patriots look to have other plans as they have been more than willing to let Butler explore his options in restricted free agency as well as delve into the possibility of a trade.
With Butler signing his tender it eliminates the possibility of a team signing him to an offer sheet, which would have netted the Pats a first round pick (Assuming they wouldn't match the offer), but it does not secure he will remain in New England. With a shortage of picks the Pats will likely be looking for draft capital in exchange for the 27 year old corner meaning that if a move is made it will likely happen before the first round starts on Thursday. With Butler becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season it makes sense that a team would want to come to terms on a long term contract before a deal is made, and Butler’s meetings with the Saints could indicate that one is in place. The Patriots have good leverage in this situation having both control over the player, and a clear suitor in place, meaning that they have several options.
Option 1: Patriots Trade Butler to New Orleans
At this point this seems the most likely alternative as there are several indicators pointing to Butler landing in the Big Easy. Firstly, Butler has already met and negotiated with New Orleans so it is fair to assume they have the preliminary details of a deal in place. With the Draft approaching quickly this could be a deadline sensitive move if the Pats plan to get draft pick compensation for him this year. Secondly, Bill Belichick and Sean Payton have a track record of trading with each other and have scheduled several preseason joint practices. They have made four trades with each other since 2015 with the latest being the Brandin Cooks blockbuster in March. New Orleans has a clear need at corner as their secondary has been a main reason for their playoff absence over the past few seasons. The Patriots could easily flip Butler and get back into the first 2 rounds of the draft, giving them enough picks to fill their remaining roster needs. Of course dealing Butler would mean the Patriots have a need at cornerback, but with the loaded group available at that position they should have no issue finding someone to step in. Trading Butler would also create just south of 4 million in cap space, which the Pats could save or turn into a late offseason signing.
Option 2: Butler Plays for Pats on Tender
If Butler isn't dealt this is likely what we see happen. This basically puts Butler on a 1-year, ‘prove it’ deal, and gives the Patriots exclusive negotiating rights up until the legal tampering period ahead of free agency. In the meantime the Pats will retain one of the league’s best corners, giving them one of the most lethal secondaries in the NFL. In the event the Patriots lose Butler to free agency the following offseason they could still recover a compensatory selection in as early as the 3rd round. The Patriots wouldn't receive the draft capital they love to squeeze out of an expiring contract, but would undoubtedly benefit from having a player like Malcolm Butler in a year with high expectations and Lombardi aspirations.
Option 3: Patriots Sign Butler To Long Term Extension
Keep in mind Malcolm Butler’s beef isn't with the Patriots it's with his contract. If the Pats pony up the cash Butler would be more than happy to continue playing for a championship organization whose fans adore him. If Butler isn't traded the two sides have plenty of time to hash out an agreement that would make both player and front office happy. However, the Patriots have never been known to over delegate their salary cap to one particular position, it's how they’ve managed to create the roster balance that has led to five championships. With big money locked into Stephon Gilmore for the foreseeable future the Pats would have to expand the corner budget if they wanted to keep Butler as well. Doing this could dry up some money needed for other key decisions such as a Jimmy Garoppolo franchise tag, which would command upwards of twenty million in cap. In a world that lacked financial restriction it would be a no-brainer to keep a player as good as Butler. Unfortunately for the Pats no such world exist and with many big roster decisions looming it may be wise to get top value for Butler while they still can.
The Patriots can come out of this situation the winner regardless of which move they make. The Pats have leverage over Malcolm Butler at least for 2017 and if they choose not to keep him they will get draft picks either way. No matter where Butler plays in 2017 the Patriots organization and fans are will forever remember the undrafted rookie out of West Alabama who made the greatest play in Super Bowl history.
Cap Figures via Miguel of @Patscap