Malcolm Butler and Odell Beckham had a memorable battle last season. (Jim O’Connor/USA Today Sports)
As the countdown to training camp begins later this month, we’re looking at the 20 most important members of the Patriots heading into 2016.
4. Cornerback Malcolm Butler
Weight: 190 pounds
Age: 26 (will turn 27 on March 2)
Resume: In two years, the undrafted free agent out of West Alabama has gone from roster afterthought to one of the most important players on the team. His signature moment came in Super Bowl XLIX, but he managed to build on that in wildly impressive fashion in 2015. With more on his shoulders after the departures of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington, Butler earned the job as the new No. 1 corner, and while there was an occasional rough patch, he managed to rise to the occasion on a pretty consistent basis against some of the best receivers in the league. (It’s also worth mentioning that, other than a misstep when it came to getting back for spring workouts, he handled the off-the-field transition from JAG to Super Bowl hero — and all that went with it — as well as could be expected, keeping the focus on his work.) Last year, Butler recorded two interceptions and 14 pass defenses last season, fourth-most in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. It was good enough to land him a Pro Bowl nod, the first of his career.
Why we ranked him here: Butler won the coin flip over linebacker Dont’a Hightower for the fourth spot for a couple of reasons, with the biggest being that in a pass-first league, the high-level cornerback wins out over the steady and consistent linebacker. The numbers are one thing, but when measuring Butler’s importance, the eye test is perhaps even more vital. While there are better pure corners, no one goes harder on a more consistent basis than the guy teammates call Straps; simply put, he approaches every play like it’s his last. It says something that the former undrafted free agent continues to approach the game the same way now he did when he was simply trying to make the roster in the summer of 2014. Last year’s win over the Giants was a perfect microcosm of who he is as a player — facing one of the best receivers in the league in Odell Beckham, there were times where he was burned, but his ability to put those plays behind him and his combative nature allowed him to make the big play at the perfect time. When you consider his technique, guts, his financial situation (which could change sooner rather than later) and the incredible importance of really good corners in the league these days, he’s earned a spot here in our top five. In the end, Butler remains the most combative cornerback in the league, a guy who will never yield an ounce to any receiver, no matter the pedigree.
Quote: “I would definitely say Malcolm – one of the things that he definitely is – is competitive. I think that was pretty evident for us going back to last year, just coming in as a free agent and knowing that you’ve got to go out and compete every day in practice and show up and make plays [and] try to stand out a little bit. That was something we definitely saw from him early, his ability to compete, his desire to compete, his intensity with that, which served him well.” — Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on Butler, 11/17/15
Random Note: Butler played a higher percentage of defensive snaps (98.9 percent) than anyone else on the New England roster last season. In addition, he was the only player on the roster to top 1,000 defensive snaps. Remarkably, he played almost 24 percent of the special teams snaps (117 total) last year as well.