The first installment of this year’s “NFL Top 100” series featured two members of the defending Super Bowl champions.
New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (No. 99) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (No. 94) both checked in between Nos. 100 and 91, which were revealed Monday night in an NFL Network special.
Butler has been the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback since the start of the 2015 season, but there was some doubt as to whether he’d be staying with the team for 2017. The 27-year-old waited more than a month to sign his restricted free-agent tender, and the New Orleans Saints showed significant interest in him in the months leading up to the NFL draft.
Ultimately, though, Butler stayed put, which is good news for New England’s defense. He led all Patriots defenders in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (17) this past season, and now he’ll be playing alongside marquee free-agent addition Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Patriots earlier this offseason.
Hightower’s future with the team was similarly murky following New England’s historic overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Widely considered the best available free-agent linebacker, Hightower took meetings with the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers before eventually re-signing with the Patriots.
Both Butler and Hightower earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2016, with Hightower also nabbing his first Pro Bowl selection.
More Patriots surely will join Butler and Hightower on this list as the final 90 names are announced. Last year’s “Top 100” included four New England players: quarterback Tom Brady at No. 2, tight end Rob Gronkowski at No. 9, defensive end Chandler Jones (now with the Arizona Cardinals) at No. 48 and wide receiver Julian Edelman at No. 87.
Thumbnail photo via Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports Images