When Malcolm Butler didn’t start Sunday against the Saints, the thought was the team liked the Eric Rowe matchup better against the tall New Orleans receivers.
Butler ended up by sliding into the No. 2 cornerback role once Rowe left the game with a groin injury, but based on the events of Tuesday, it’s clear it wasn’t just a matchup thing.
The 27-year-old’s antenna should be going up, as he potentially could be on the outs.
On Tuesday’s conference call, Bill Belichick was asked about several players including Butler, Rowe and Jonathan Jones. The coach had high praise for Rowe and Jones, but when it came to Butler, he couldn’t even say his name.
“Well, look, we’re into a new season, so I don’t think anybody’s performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be,” Belichick said on the conference call. “We all need to do a better job – players, coaches – all of us across the board. Hopefully, we’ll all continue to get better during the course of the year. That’s why we practice, and meet, and come in here and work hard, so hopefully we’ll all be able to improve.”
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia echoed the same thoughts when asked about the 27-year-old corner.
“I think Coach Belichick obviously answered a lot of those questions too,” he said. “In terms of asking me as far as for us defensively, you know it’s all about this year. I think what things have gone down in the past doesn’t really matter to us. We’re trying to get better for this year and the guys that are out there and positions or where we think they need to be right now currently and to help us win that particular week. Certainly with Eric Rowe involved coming in and having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint, I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is depending on how the game is going kind of just plays itself out when we’re in the particular situation we’re in as far as the game is concerned.”
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to figure out something is up with Butler, and it isn’t all that surprising, either.
Butler was upset this offseason when the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore to a megadeal and even visited the Saints as a restricted free agent, but he appeared to put that behind him by attending the voluntary workouts in the spring, OTAs and minicamp. He even had a solid first few weeks of training camp, but then around the week of the second preseason game against the Texans, something changed. Butler hasn’t been his usual self since.
Looking back at recent history, it would not be a surprise if Butler was traded before the trade deadline (Oct. 31). He’s in the final year of his rookie contract and it’s highly unlikely he re-signs in New England. As we’ve seen in the past, instead of letting a player walk via free agency and getting just a compensatory pick, Belichick likes to get something more in return.
In the case of Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones it was draft picks, but for Butler it may be a player. Last year prior to the deadline Collins was shipped to Cleveland for a draft pick, but this year the Patriots could be in need of a player (maybe a receiver or defensive end) and Butler could be what it takes to get one.
Belichick having Rowe and Jones (42 percent of the snaps against the Saints) see extensive playing time could be his way of seeing what he has behind Butler. If he feels comfortable with these two being the cornerbacks behind Gilmore, then Butler could be sent on his way just like Collins was last year.
Of course, there are some downsides to this as even if he isn’t the same player this year as in the past, Butler is still a very good player and would surely still help the team. Four good cornerbacks is better than three. Also, what if Butler is dealt and one of the three corners left were to get injured — there’s no Cyrus Jones to fall back on. The cornerback position could be very thin.
All of this doesn’t mean for sure Butler will be dealt — just look at Jabaal Sheard last season — but the signs are hard to ignore.