Here comes the second wave of Malcolm Butler trade rumors.
Butler didn’t start the Patriots’ Week 2 matchup against the New Orleans Saints after rumors swirled all offseason that the cornerback was on the trade block. Those reports could pick up steam again prior to the NFL’s trade deadline, which is on Halloween this year.
The reason for Butler’s pseudo-benching (he still served as the team’s No. 3 cornerback) could be simple. The Saints start two tall wide receivers in Michael Thomas and Brandon Coleman, and the Patriots might have felt cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, both of whom are over 6 feet tall, were a better matchup for the 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6 wideouts.
But the Patriots haven’t benched Butler in the past for size mismatches. Butler started every game in 2015 and 2016. And when Butler was on the field as the third corner, he still was covering Thomas and Coleman, while Rowe typically kicked inside to cover Tommylee Lewis in the slot. Butler even gave up a 5-yard touchdown reception to Coleman at the goal line during the game.
So, what’s going on here?
Butler didn’t look like himself during the preseason, allowing big plays and touchdowns in limited action. He was flagged for a costly pass interference penalty in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs and let up six catches on six targets for 40 yards.
Butler was a Pro Bowl selection in 2015 and an All-Pro in 2016, so it certainly would be odd to limit his role for performance-based reasons. This benching brings back memories of the Patriots similarly reducing linebacker Jamie Collins’s role prior to trading him to the Cleveland Browns in 2016.
Because of the offseason trade rumors, moving Butler certainly would be less shocking than last season’s Collins trade. There would be a similar mindset behind it, too. Butler will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and it seems unlikely the Patriots will keep him beyond this season. The Patriots might get a 2019 third-round compensatory draft pick for letting him walk, but it’s not a guarantee. So the idea behind a trade would be to move Butler for something now rather than risk getting nothing in return for letting him go as a free agent.
Obviously trading Butler would, in theory, hurt the Patriots’ defense in the short-term. But trading Collins was supposed to have the same effect last season, and the Patriots won a Super Bowl. The Patriots are well-equipped behind Butler with Rowe, but depth would get shaky when New England would have to run out a third or fourth cornerback.
The Patriots might elect to keep Butler all season, but his reduced role certainly is notable given everything that occurred this offseason.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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