Malcolm Butler shut down Antonio Brown in the AFC championship game. (James Lang/USA Today Sports)
Malcolm Butler is the kind of player who should be rewarded. As an undrafted rookie out of the University of West Alabama, he parlayed an impressive preseason into a spot at the bottom of the Patriots’ roster in 2014. Three years later, after a Super Bowl-winning interception and two seasons of playing lockdown defense at cornerback, he wants to cash in. If Bill Belichick acted on sentimentality instead of rationality, he would probably acquiesce to Butler’s wishes.
But that’s not the way he operates, which is why Butler doesn’t have a lucrative long-term contract offer in front of him. Instead, he has a restricted free agent tender worth $3.91 million. For a player who’s earned just $1.53 million combined over his first three NFL seasons, that’s a nice raise. But it’s a far cry from the $40 million guaranteed the Patriots handed to Stephon Gilmore in free agency last week.
There’s little doubt Butler, 27, deserves to be paid like an elite corner. Last season, he broke up 12 passes and had nine games in which he allowed two or fewer completions. Butler also surrendered fewer than 20 receiving yards seven times.
But unfortunately for Butler, he’s not an unrestricted free agent. That means he doesn’t have any leverage, and the Patriots know it. If Butler refuses to sign his tender by June 15, his salary will fall to $660,000. If he wants to be defiant and skip minicamp, it will cost him more than $80,000. He would be docked $40,000 per day if he were to miss training camp.
It seems cruel for the Patriots to treat Butler this way, especially considering they reportedly lied to him about what they would be willing to pay a cornerback. The Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe says the Patriots told Butler they don’t want to outlay more than $10 million per season for a corner, but then they went and signed Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million deal. That averages out to $13 million annually, for those keeping score at home.
Perhaps feeling stung, Butler’s agent is reportedly trying to get his client out of New England. But any team that signs Butler would be forced to surrender a first-round pick, due to his restricted free agent status. It’s unlikely any club would ink Butler to a market value contract and give up significant draft capital.
Maybe an organization that’s enthralled with Butler could justify surrendering its first-round selection if it could sign him to a bargain rate deal. But then the Patriots would have the option of matching it. Or they could let him walk and collect the draft pick, replacing what they traded to the Saints to acquire star wideout Brandin Cooks. Under that scenario, the Patriots would essentially be swapping Butler for Cooks, Gilmore and a first-round pick. (ESPN’s Mike Reiss speculates the Saints and Patriots could pull off a sign-and-trade, with New Orleans sending the Patriots’ first-rounder back to them.)
The Patriots have options. Butler doesn’t. That’s the way the system works, and they’re taking advantage of it. One may assume this callous way of doing business affects the Patriots’ relationships with their players, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Butler himself would still reportedly prefer to stay in New England. The allure of competing for a Super Bowl every season is difficult to pass up.
Giving Butler a big contract now would be putting his interests ahead of the team’s. Belichick and the Patriots seldom do that. Their approach here shouldn’t be shocking to anyone.