The Patriots have a long history of bringing players back for second (and sometimes even third) stints in New England. But this latest reunion has to be the unlikeliest of the Bill Belichick era.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler, four years removed from infamously playing zero defensive snaps in Super Bowl LII, has returned to the Patriots, parlaying a Monday tryout into a two-year contract worth up to $9 million.
In addition to turning head coach Bill Belichick’s next media availability into a must-watch affair, Butler’s comeback could be a major boost to New England’s depleted and talent-deficient cornerback group.
The key words there are “could be.”
Butler is an experienced player with a proven record of success in the Patriots’ defense. But he’s also 32 years old and, in addition to being away from New England for the last four seasons, did not play anywhere in 2021. He retired last September, just days before his first regular-season game as an Arizona Cardinal, citing unspecified personal reasons.
Under those circumstances — player north of 30 who hasn’t played a meaningful football game in over a year — it’s impossible to predict how Butler will fare in his return to the field.
Expecting Butler to be the type of cover man he was for New England in 2015 (Pro Bowler) and 2016 (second-team All-Pro) is unrealistic, but the Patriots likely would be satisfied with the 2020 version of the Super Bowl XLIX hero.
That year — Butler’s last of three with the Tennessee Titans — he finished as Pro Football Focus’s 15th-highest-graded cornerback, starting tallying a career-high 111 tackles with four interceptions and 14 passes defended. PFF’s grades indicate he performed best zone coverage, which the traditionally man-heavy Patriots could continue to gravitate toward in 2022.
Can Butler still be a starting-caliber player? That remains to be seen. But the Patriots clearly have at least some level of confidence in the former undrafted free agent. The full details of his contract, which have yet to be reported, will tell us whether he’s locked into a roster spot or will need to compete for one this summer, but it seems like a relatively low-risk move to address an obvious need.
Right now, with more additions surely forthcoming, Butler projects to compete with veteran newcomer Terrance Mitchell for one starting outside cornerback spot, with holdover Jalen Mills manning the other and a healthy Jonathan Jones returning to patrol the slot. Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade will battle for roster spots, with Justin Bethel ideally contributing only on special teams.
Since Butler and Mitchell both will be over 30 when the season begins, the Patriots would be wise to inject some young talent into this group, potentially with an early selection (or two) in the 2022 NFL Draft. New England also still could add another veteran corner via free agency or trade.
The Patriots, whose lack of secondary depth proved costly late last season, need to beef up their cornerback room to keep pace with the offensive explosion that’s taken place across the AFC of late. Three teams with playoff-worthy rosters acquired quarterback upgrades, and arguably the NFL’s two best receivers both were traded to teams on the Patriots’ 2022 schedule, with Tyreek Hill joining the AFC East-rival Miami Dolphins hours before the Butler signing.