And so it begins. Today is the unofficial opening day of Release SZN. The Franchise tag deadline has come and gone. Free agency begins in a week. The salary cap has been set:
And with 10 teams currently over the cap according to ... well, to Over the Cap, two more less than a million dollars under it, cuts are coming and they'll be coming fast. For instance, this morning Emmanuel Sanders was released by a New Orleans team that is in Salary Cap solitary confinement. They've been living on borrowed time to the point even losing Sanders only moved them from the worst situation in the league ($47.4 million over) to second worst ($31.9 million).
And now Tennessee tells Malcolm Butler to clear out his things and security will see him to the door. And a former Patriots starter/hero/folk legend isn't about to find himself unemployed without somebody cuing up the obligatory GIF. And it might as well be me.
Before you go off saying that Bill Belichick is the last GM in the league Butler would want to do business with, hear me out. Or don't. Begone from my presence if you wish, I'm not the boss of you. But just go in the knowledge that a Butler return to Foxboro makes sense on a lot of levels.
Before I go another sentence, I'll go right to the Brachiosaurus in the room. The last time we saw Butler in a Patriots uniform, he was in tears instead of in the secondary, thanks to the single most mysterious, inexplicable coaching decision of Belichick's life. As I'm typing this and you're reading it, we are in closer proximity to one another than Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi were to their assigned receivers on some of their coverages while Butler stood on the sideline dying inside. So you wouldn't be unreasonable to think he might hold a grudge on that one.
But I'll repeat a story I wrote about the day after Super Bowl LII and several times since. A reliable source spoke directly to Butler at the after party. And confirms that Butler wasn't mad. He wasn't the ball of resentment you'd expect him to be. Or that I'd be or you'd be. He simply said "Coach and I didn't think I was ready" after missing some of the practices with an illness. And that was confirmed by a Pats football ops guy who was with Butler all week. Disagree with the decision all you want (who doesn't?), but based on his reaction in real time, it's a stretch to think that Butler would harbor such a grudge that three years later he's still not over it. So much so that he would refuse to ever work for the man again.
Let's not forget that the only other time we saw Malcolm Go cry was this moment (the 8:51 mark), brought to by Bill Belichick:
That play and the two good seasons that followed under Belichick's coaching got Butler a five-year, $61 million deal out of Tennessee. That, plus time, will heal a lot of emotional wounds.
More to the point, the Patriots currently have a cornerback problem. Butler has an unemployment problem. People have settled scores, buried hatchets and gotten back together over a lot less.
Stephon Gilmore is going to be tough to bring back. His $16.2 million cap hit is almost 25% higher than anyone else on the roster. The team gave him a bump in pay last offseason. Just before the trading deadline he put his house on the market. And by all the reliable unsubstantiated media rumors, he's looking for more money and likely won't be back. If that's the case, JC Jackson then becomes their primary cornerback, as he follows in Butler's footprints as the UDFA who made the roster, stuck around, turned himself into a dependable starter and will soon become a very rich man. Jonathan Jones has been a good edition but is primarily a slot corner. Jason McCourty is a veteran depth guy and not much else. After two seasons, Joejuan Williams hasn't established himself as anything more than a subpackage player. The chance to add a 31-year-old veteran of the system who can come in and solidify the corner opposite Jackson for a fraction of what it will cost to keep Gilmore has to be tempting.
And Butler's play lately would justify the move. I criticized him at times in Tennessee and I stand by it. There were times in 2018-19 when he was the third best corner on his own team, losing reps to Logan Ryan, Adoree' Jackson, Tremaine Brock Sr. and others. But he had a great bounce back year in 2020:
- He was second only to Patrick Peterson among all corners in the league with 1,087 snaps.
- The 4 TDs he gave up was tied for the year before, despite doubling his playing time.
- His interceptions went from two in 2019 to five in 2020.
- His passes broken up increased from five to 11.
- His passer rating when targeted fell from 98.4 to 78.6. That's after being over 102.0 in his first two seasons in Nashville.
- And he reduced his penalties from five to just two.
All in all, I'd argue that was the best season of Butler's career. At the very least it was as good as his 4 TD, 4 INT, 16 PBU, 78.2 PRA season in 2016. So there should be a market for him. But there's so much uncertainty in the league and so few teams have the money, the need, and the confidence in the player, the Patriots would be the perfect fit.
Yes, it would mean Belichick and Butler being asked about the weird way it ended back in February of 2018. But they've dealt with bigger issues. And it's nothing that a few answers of "We talked about that at the time and now we're focused on blah blah blah" with the Deflector Shields set to Maximum wouldn't solve in minutes. In a perfect world, the Pats find a way to keep Gilmore. But in this imperfect one, putting the 2014-17 band back together makes all the sense in the world.