FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s still early, but two months into his shocking return to the New England Patriots, Malcolm Butler looks a lot like … well, Malcolm Butler.
That’s according to Butler’s teammates and coaches, who say they’ve witnessed the same competitiveness from the 32-year-old that they saw during his first Patriots stint.
“Malcolm works hard, like he always has,” head coach Bill Belichick said before Tuesday’s voluntary practice. “Very competitive, out there scrapping for balls. His aggressiveness, play style — we’re not in pads, but yeah, looks like it’s about the same.”
Slot corner Jonathan Jones — the only member of the Patriots’ current cornerback group who overlapped with Butler’s initial tenure — shared a similar review Tuesday afternoon.
“Malcolm’s the same player, in my opinion,” Jones said. “He comes out, he works hard and just wants to get better every day. He hasn’t lost that itch for the game.”
That itch drove Butler to return to football after retiring for personal reasons last offseason — and inspired this spring’s unlikeliest reunion. Butler’s next game in a Patriots uniform will be his first since Super Bowl LII, during which Belichick infamously refused to play him even as New England’s secondary was torched in a 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Butler said he feels “rejuvenated” and “fresh” after his season away from the game and motivated to prove he still can be the same player who starred for the Patriots in the mid-2010s. Though his Pro Bowl days likely are behind him, he was productive in his most recent season, tallying 100 tackles, four interceptions and 14 passes defended while playing in every game for Tennessee in 2020.
Returning to the NFL after a year on the couch is no simple task, however, especially at Butler’s age. He’s a strong candidate to earn one of New England’s starting outside cornerback spots, but he also could be cut before Week 1 if his game is not up to snuff, as his two-year contract includes just $750,000 in guaranteed money.
The Patriots’ cornerback battle also features veterans Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell, holdovers Myles Bryant and Joejuan Williams and 2022 draft picks Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. A resurgent season from Butler would allay concerns about that group, which, after losing J.C. Jackson in free agency, lacks a true lockdown cover man for the first time in a decade.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove, especially to myself,” Butler said. “If I do it myself, I’ll prove it to my teammates at the same time. So that’s why I’m working hard every day and trying to stay focused.”
As for how it feels to be back on the Patriots’ practice field, a smiling Butler replied: “It feels like yesterday.”