Malcolm Butler has nothing to prove to Patriots fans. His game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX made him a household name throughout the Northeast. His ascendance from undrafted free agent to one of the league’s top coverage backs earned him respect across the league. If he hits the free-agent marketplace next spring, he’ll be one of the most coveted players available.
Instead, 2017 is about proving to himself that he’s an elite cornerback — and then getting paid like one.
Butler, a two-time Super Bowl champion and a one-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler, has made just $1.53 million in base salary to date. After signing a one-year, $3.91 million tender with New England, that figure will nearly quadruple — but be just $5.44 million. Conversely, Marshon Lattimore, the 11th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, was guaranteed more than $15 million before even playing a snap in the league.
Butler’s chance for a payday comes in 2018, but the upcoming season is more than that. The streaky corner has maintained radio silence when it comes to his upcoming contract year, instead setting the stage for his play to do the talking. So far, his physical coverage alongside free-agent pickup Stephon Gilmore has made Bill Belichick very happy. It’s clear he’s bought into the Patriot way — for 2017, at least.
“It doesn’t matter [who I go up against]," he told the press after being asked whether he’d be comfortable moving to the slot when needed. "I am ready for whoever, whenever. Anything to help the team win.”
Butler’s ascension hasn’t been all sunshine, however. He’ll have to find a way to correct the mistakes of 2016, including at the Super Bowl, where he’d earned fame years prior. Until the Patriots made their historic comeback to topple the Falcons, two images were set to define an Atlanta win — Tom Brady sprawled on the turf after a pick-six, and Butler getting flipped to the ground by Taylor Gabriel’s double-move downfield.
It wasn’t all bad. Butler and his secondary bent hard in the first half but didn’t break. Their ability to limit Matt Ryan and hold the Falcons scoreless over the final 22:30 was as important to the greatest comeback in league history as Brady’s passes or James White’s ability to be everywhere at once.
Butler’s Super Bowl highlights paint him as a boom-or-bust corner, but he’s been much more than that in New England. He’s improved in each of his three seasons with the team, rising up from a dime package afterthought to one of the league’s premier cover corners. Last season brought career highs in interceptions and passes defensed; Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value measurement graded him as the Patriots’ second-best defender and the league’s third-most-valuable cornerback.
That led the secondary-needy Saints to come calling in the offseason, though the two teams eventually failed to come to a trade agreement for the young corner despite months of speculation.
No matter how often Butler tells reporters 2017 is all about his team, his performance will resonate in next year’s free-agent talks. By breaking onto the scene with a Super Bowl-winning interception, clinching another title two years later in the greatest NFL game of all time, and earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, Butler is in a rare place for a fourth-year player; the only person he’s got to prove himself to is himself.
The one thing that has eluded the still-growing defender in his budding career is a big paycheck. Earning that means one more dynamic season with New England — a move that, ironically, could be the key that marks his departure from the franchise that developed him from a Division II free agent to a top cornerback.
With one expensive corner on the roster — Gilmore signed for five years and $65 million this offseason — Butler could be the kind of expensive luxury the Patriots have typically avoided. While the franchise has handled its cap space carefully, Jimmy Garoppolo will be due a big raise should he be retained, and he could be the recipient of the franchise tag the club could otherwise use to keep Butler in the fold. If Butler hits the market, he’s likely to get an offer that exceeds Gilmore’s — and likely prices him out of Foxborough.
2017 could be the most important year of Malcolm Butler’s career. Coming from a player who single-handedly swung a Super Bowl and ensured he’d never have to buy his own drinks in New England again, that’s a big deal.