Next up in our New England Patriots free agent profile series: cornerback Malcolm Butler.
It’s time to accept that we may never hear the full story behind Butler’s Super Bowl LII benching, which still makes little sense more than two weeks later.
After playing the most defensive snaps of any Patriots player during the regular season — more than 97 percent — Butler did not see the field on defense in New England’s 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, watching from the sideline as Nick Foles picked on the likes of Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi.
Bill Belichick’s decision to sit the Super Bowl XLIX hero infuriated and bewildered Patriots supporters, and it erased whatever slim chance Butler had of returning to New England next season. It’s now a near certainty that the 27-year-old will sign elsewhere once he hits unrestricted free agency March 14.
Let’s take a quick glance at Butler’s 2017 season and the Patriots’ plans for replacing him.
2017 stats: 60 tackles, two interceptions, 12 pass breakups, one sack, two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss, three forced fumbles
Highlight of the season: This was Butler’s least-consistent season as an NFL starter, but he still made several important plays, most notably his goal-line forced fumble against Austin Sefarian-Jenkins during a Week 6 win over the New York Jets. Butler also had one of his two interceptions in that game.
Chances of coming back: Basically zero.
Cornerback depth: Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis (practice squad), Jomal Wiltz (practice squad)
Contingency plan: Gilmore played like a legit No. 1 corner over the second half of the season and throughout the playoffs, and if worst comes to worst, the Patriots can roll with him and Rowe as starters with one of the Joneses as the No. 3.
That’s not a particularly desirable plan, though, especially considering Rowe and both Joneses suffered serious injuries this past season. Jonathan Jones’ injury — a season-ender likely involving his Achilles — occurred in the playoffs, and it’s unclear when he’ll be healthy enough to return to the field.
This current depth chart makes cornerback one of New England’s biggest areas of need entering the offseason.
There aren’t many elite corners set to hit free agency, but given what the Patriots are paying Gilmore (five years, $65 million), they might not be willing to shell out the cash for one, anyway. The list of second- or third-tier guys who should be available includes Patrick Robinson, Aaron Colvin, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Vontae Davis, Kyle Fuller and Bashaud Breeland.
NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt listed New England as a potential landing spot for Breeland, who spent the last four seasons with the Washington Redskins.
The Patriots also could address the position through the draft — here’s a look at the top 10 cornerbacks available — or, in a move fans surely would love, swing a trade for a top-flight veteran like Richard Sherman or former Patriot Aqib Talib. Our own Doug Kyed discussed that possibility in his post-Super Bowl mailbag.
Patriots free agent profiles: Dion Lewis
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images