The Malcolm Butler trade drama is a tangled mess of offer sheets, tenders and silly restrictions enforced by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Ultimately, though, it’s simple. The New England Patriots must choose to keep or trade the All-Pro cornerback.

Butler currently is a restricted free agent. Any NFL team can sign him, but let’s use the New Orleans Saints, with whom Butler met for two days last week, as an example throughout this column. If the Saints (or any other team) decide to present an offer sheet to Butler, the cornerback and his agent must agree to it. The Patriots then would have the right to match it. If they did, Butler would be signed by the Patriots to the contract as constructed by the Saints.

If the Patriots didn’t match the offer sheet, Butler would go to the Saints, and the Patriots would receive New Orleans’ 11th overall pick.

This scenario seems unlikely. Butler is a great player, but he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent in 12 months when the Saints could get him for no compensation. The 11th overall pick, plus a massive long-term extension, is a lot to give up for what’s effectively one year of a great player. Could it happen? Potentially. But Patriots fans should not expect or get their hopes up to select 11th overall. Chances are they’ll be disappointed.

Another option, and one that might not come to fruition for a while, is the Patriots could trade Butler. He first would have to sign the first-round tender given to him by the Patriots, which pays him $3.91 million for the 2017 season. He has until April 21 to do this. (If he doesn’t sign it, he’ll just become a restricted free agent again in 2018, which is counterproductive for a player trying to make some dough.)

When Butler signs his offer sheet, the Patriots can trade him if they determine the compensation is worth more than keeping him for one year, plus a potential 2019 third-round comp draft pick. Since Butler is a free agent right now, he can discuss contract parameters with the Saints. So, the Patriots could trade Butler to New Orleans for any compensation, and the Saints and Butler then would complete the agreed-upon contract extension. The most likely compensation is either the 32nd overall pick the Patriots packaged to trade to the Saints for Brandin Cooks or a second- and third-round pick.

The Patriots can’t discuss a trade until Butler signs his tender, so, Butler likely is hoping he gets signed to an offer sheet. Otherwise, whether Butler is moved is up to the Patriots’ discretion.

If the Patriots can’t agree to a trade after Butler signs his tender, then he would play for $3.91 million in New England this season. It’s not ideal for Butler, but he’ll make more in 2017 than any player selected after the 9th overall pick in 2014, the year Butler went undrafted. The total amount of money Butler will have made over the course of his first four years in the league will be equal to that of a high second-round pick. Not too shabby.

Butler will eventually get paid. If he stays with the Patriots, this year won’t be it.

So, what should the Patriots do? If they can get a first-round pick, they should trade him. Five years of control over a first-round player is worth more than one year of Butler and a possible comp pick. Anything less, and trading Butler isn’t worth it, though Bill Belichick very well could decide otherwise.

And if the Patriots can get the 11th overall pick? Rejoice.

Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images