The Patriots have spent the offseason making a flurry of aggressive moves, while basically sitting on their hands with cornerback and Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler. Butler spent the early part of free agency making eyes at the Saints, but reports now claim a trade with New Orleans is unlikely to happen. The Patriots seem dead-set on getting at least one more cost-efficient year out of Butler, simply because they can.
Butler wants a long-term deal, but he was a restricted free agent this offseason, which meant he didn’t have any real options, while the Pats merely had to offer him a tender in the amount of $3.91 million for one season.
Butler could have signed with the Saints when things were getting hot and heavy between them last month, but the restricted free-agent rules would have given the Pats the chance to match the offer, while also requiring New Orleans to cough up a first-round pick—the Saints have No. 11 and No. 32 overall, but they would have had to forfeit their original pick, which is the former—if Butler had signed with the Saints. In late March, Saints head coach Sean Payton acknowledged that was never going to happen.
Butler wound up signing the Pats’ offer sheet last Tuesday, three days before there was a deadline on his right to bargain with other teams. Had he not signed, the Pats would have had an exclusive negotiating window with him. And had he still not signed by until June 15, New England could have pulled the $3.91 million offer and substituted with an offer of 110 percent of his 2016 salary—which would have come to just $660,000.
What about a trade? That was in the cards once Butler signed his offer sheet last week, especially because he and the Saints had reached an agreement on a framework for a long-term deal. But the Saints have three picks in the first two rounds of this week’s draft, and five in the first three rounds. The draft is stocked with cornerbacks—Pro Football Focus’s draft guide calls it “the best cornerback class we have seen in over a decade”—so the Saints could decide to try to find a corner there, where there will also be cost control. As Peter King put it today:
The Saints (picking 11, 32, 42, 76, 103 in the first three rounds) are still interested in Butler, but someone familiar with their thinking believes they are leaning toward keeping their first three picks. The Saints believe that their board between 25 and 75 has a slew of players capable of contributing immediately, with grades close to each other, and the thought of dealing one or more picks for Butler, then paying him a huge contract, is less attractive than it once seemed.
Restricted free agents are players with three accrued seasons of service time. They’re increasingly rare in the NFL under this CBA because all draft picks now sign four-year deals with slotted salaries. But Butler went undrafted. He’s also 27, and he has virtually no leverage.
Butler can skip the offseason program, including next month’s OTAs, but those are voluntary anyway. If he were to hold out from the three-day mandatory minicamp in June, the Pats could fine him a maximum of $80,405. If he were to stay away from training camp, he would be docked $40,000 per day. This is how the current CBA more or less did away with contract holdouts.
Butler’s best, most realistic option is to play his ass off in 2017. He’s due to become an unrestricted free agent next year, and at that time he would be free to command as much as the free-agent market warrants. The Patriots, who signed former Bills corner Stephon Gilmore for $40 million guaranteed to play opposite Butler, appear to have known this all along.