Here in the dead of the offseason I’ve been pondering the upcoming contract situations for various Patriots players in the next couple of years. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are the first priorities, with Jabaal Sheard garnering plenty of consideration himself. And those three are just the top of the list, the Pats will be hitting the reset button in a number of areas this coming offseason.
But most interesting to me is Malcolm Butler’s situation. With his strange absence from early OTA practices that he deemed a “misunderstanding,” while the media thought it was because he was unhappy with his pay, it seems like things could get interesting sooner than later.
What troubles me was looking back at this article I wrote last season about how the Patriots just didn’t give lucrative long-term deals to cornerbacks. They’ll be fine paying a big sum of money for a season like they did with Asante Samuel and Darrelle Revis, but they’ve never broken the bank for cornerbacks.
History Not on Butler’s Side
The Pats are in the driver’s seat through next season, when Butler hits restricted free agency. They can hit him with a first round tender and Butler will either have to find a team willing to give up a first round pick for him or play for the Patriots at a ballpark salary of $3.7 million. For a guy making $600k this season, that’s a pretty good bump.
But after 2017 is when things get interesting. Given the Pats’ history it would make sense to think the team will hit Butler with the franchise tag, let him play the season out and then let him walk. Yes, that seems like an abrupt end for a Super Bowl hero and the most promising cornerback since Ty Law, but if the Pats played hard ball with Law, there’s little reason to doubt they’ll play hard ball with Butler.
Age is a slight difference in this situation though, as Butler would turn 28 at the start of the 2018 league season. When the Pats were negotiating a new deal for Law he was already at the dreaded 30. Here’s some insight from last year’s piece about how those negotiations went:
In 2004, Law wanted another extension and the Patriots offered him $26 million over four years. Even today that would be the biggest contract extension the Patriots ever awarded to a corner. Law called the offer an insult and countered with a seven-year deal worth $63 million, including a $20 million signing bonus. Then-general manager Scott Pioli simply responded “We can’t do that. Save the paper.”
The scariest precedent is Asante Samuel, who led the league in interceptions in the final year of his rookie deal in 2006. Instead of giving the promising young corner a long term deal, the Pats hit him with the franchise tag in 2007 for $7.79 million then let him go to the Eagles the next offseason on a six-year, $56 million deal.
Butler Break the Mold?
But maybe Butler is different. He’s certainly a better fit for the Patriots now than Samuel was because of his ability to play man coverage and fearless run support. But with so many other players to pay over the next couple seasons and a number of other promising young man-coverage cornerbacks in the pipeline, the team might once again be forced to let a talented player leave.
Things could come to a head sooner if Butler doesn’t feel like waiting for this scenario to unfold. If he were to hold out would the Patriots give him a raise like they did with Richard Seymour? Seymour proved that playing hardball with the Pats can sometimes work out. But defensive end is a different position and one that the Patriots seem to value more than cornerback.
If Butler isn’t careful he could instead end up like Deion Branch in 2006 — shipped out of town.
This will be one of the more fascinating scenarios to play out over the next couple years. Is Butler really special? Has the way the Patriots view cornerbacks changed? Or will he just be the latest one to have every ounce of value squeezed out of him before cashing in with a huge deal from another team?