It feels inevitable, it feels like it will happen any day now and oddly enough, it feels like something that has happened before.
I’m talking about the Malcom Butler trade.
No, it hasn’t yet, but it’s going too. You know it, I know it, my dog knows it and she hates football. Butler is only a few short years removed from making one of the biggest and best plays in Super Bowl history and now, thanks to the “Patriot Way” and Bill Belichick’s established track record of trading away players before anyone thinks he should, he is all but guaranteed to be heading out of New England sometime in the next few weeks, destination unknown.
Butler, an undrafted free agent from the University of West Alabama, signed with the Patriots in May of 2014. That year he appeared sporadically in 11 games and didn’t start his first game until a mid-December game versus the Miami Dolphins. He finished the year with 15 tackles and three passes defended. Decent, but nothing to get too excited about. Truth be told, no one outside of the Patriots’ organization really knew about Butler until there was a little over a minute left of Super XLIX.
First there was the Jermaine Kearse catch.
That’s Butler, leaping in the air and unknowingly deflecting the ball right into Kearse’s grasp.
Fast forward to :26 seconds left, with the Seahawks knocking on the door of a go-ahead touchdown.
With that interception everyone knew who Butler was now. Tom Brady might have won Most Valuable Player, but there was little doubt who was the hero of the game as New England would go on to win their fourth Super Bowl in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.
From that point on Butler was no longer a fifth string cornerback. The Patriots’ cut ties with their starting cornerbacks from 2014, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and Butler was now the team’s top cornerback. Playing in all 16 games, Butler recorded two interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl. He went on to post similar stats the following year, a year in which the Patriots again won the Super Bowl.
Here’s where things started to get dicey for Butler and the Patriots though. Following the Super Bowl victory Butler told the Patriots he was ready to get paid like a top cornerback. The Patriots response was less than enthusiastic. The team balked at his request for a long-term deal and only muddied the waters when they signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract, i.e. the kind of money and long-term commitment Butler was looking for.
The Patriots and Butler spent the next several weeks going back and forth about a contract, while at the same time the Patriots were kicking the tires on possible trading partners, the Saints being the most vocal. When the Saints traded wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots, the initial thought was that Butler must have been involved. He wasn’t though, and any possible trades soon dried up. Butler eventually blinked first and signed a one-year tender to return to New England for $3.91 million.
Heading into the season with the duo of Gilmore and Butler on board, it appeared that the Patriots had one of the most formidable cornerback tandems in the league. Butler seemed resigned to his fate (one more year in New England, then most likely elsewhere in 2018) and the Patriots seemed resigned to theirs (Butler for one more year, then he walks.) Done and done.
Except this is New England we’re talking about and with any Belichick team nothing is ever set in stone. Belichick is constantly tinkering with his roster and has demonstrated a cold-hearted willingness to trade even the most beloved of players if he thinks it’ll make his team better.
Deion Branch was the team’s leading wide receiver and MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles. But in 2006 he was struggling to see eye to eye with the Patriots when it came to his contract and was traded away to Seattle for a first round draft pick.
Vrabel was a staple on the Patriots’ defense during their initial Super Bowl run in the early 2000’s. He made timely plays, was one of the team’s emotional leaders and even caught himself a few touchdowns. He was traded, along with backup quarterback Matt Cassel, to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 for the 33rd overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Seymour had been in New England since the team drafted him sixth overall in the 2001 draft. During his time with the Patriots Seymour was a mainstay on their defensive line and one of the units leaders. He was a first team All-Pro in 2003, 2004 and 2005. In 2008 he had 8 sacks and 15 tackles, playing in all but one of New England’s games. However, on the eve of the 2009 season, his last under his current contract, Seymour was abruptly traded away to the Oakland Raiders for a first round pick.
Moss came over to the Patriots prior to the team’s 18-1 2007 season and looked like a new man playing in New England. Yet the honeymoon was relatively short-lived and by 2010 Moss was upset with the team and requesting a trade. His request was granted the day after the team’s fourth game of the season and he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, where he had started his career.
If you have a quarterback like Tom Brady on your team, you want to make sure you protect him and no one did that better than Mankins, who had been with New England since they drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft. Dependable and tough as nails, Mankins, like some of the players previously mentioned, found himself at odds with the team during contract talks prior to the 2014 season. The end result was Mankins being traded to Tampa Bay for tight end Tim Wright and a 2015 fourth round pick.
Jones was another Patriots first round draft pick and with his contract up following the 2016 season, Patriots’ logic dictated that he was going to be traded, which he was prior to the season starting. Jones was sent to Arizona in exchange for a second round draft pick and guard Jonathan Cooper.
Now the most recent example of a Patriot being suddenly traded away from New England is also the one that most closely resembles the Malcolm Butler situation. It’s also the trade that has become most frequently referenced when the topic of Butler’s future comes up.
Jamie Collins was not a first round pick, although he was a second rounder, going 52nd overall in the 2013 draft. Immensely talented and full of potential, Collins was a freak of nature. He could get to the quarterback when he needed too, but he also excelled at pass protection. Belichick has always had a strong affinity for hybrid linebackers, players who were versatile and able to be all over the field when needed, and Collins certainly seemed to fit the bill.
During the 2015 season Collins played 100% of New England’s snaps on defense in 9 games, with his lowest snap count (73%) coming in a 36-7 win over Miami late in the season. He led the team with 89 tackles and his five forced fumbles was a franchise record. Paired with Dont’a Hightower, it looked like the Patriots were going to be set at linebacker for the foreseeable future.
Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but headed into the 2016 season Collins was in the last year of his rookie deal. That made three of the Patriots’ defensive leaders (Collins, Hightower and Jones) all looking towards big pay days following the 2016 season and something had to give. So first Jones went and following that trade, it was assumed Belichick had decided to ride with Hightower and Collins.
Things seemed to be going according to that plan throughout the 2016 season’s first four games as Collins played on 100% of the Patriots’ defensive snaps. However, in week five, that percentage dipped to 82.5% and the following week, it went up slightly to 89%. Those numbers weren’t all that alarming or noticeable, especially seeing as how Belichick isn’t beholden to any set lineup and lets each game’s match-ups determine his game plan. But what did raise some eyebrows was the Patriots week eight game versus Buffalo, a 41-25 win, and Collins’ playing time in the game. Not only did he not start, he played on only 61% of the team’s defensive snaps, lower than any game the previous year.
In the week following the win over Buffalo, Collins was traded to Cleveland.
Looking at snaps played is how you can best draw comparisons between the Butler situation and the Collins situation. Butler played in all 16 of New England’s games in 2016 and like Collins, played on 100% of the team’s defensive snaps in nine games. His lowest percentage of snaps played was in week five versus Cleveland when he played on 87.3% of snaps. Butler bested that low percentage this past week versus New Orleans, playing on just 49 snaps, 75%. He was also not in the starting lineup, replaced by Eric Rowe.
On Tuesday, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia weren’t exactly eager to give Butler any kind of vote of confidence or reassuring words.
This year the Patriots’ bye week falls on week 9. Oddly enough, that’s the exact same week as last year when Collins was traded.
Now you have to wonder if Belichick would even wait that long. The Patriots aren’t in trouble by any means, but they have been hit by some significant injuries early on and could use help on both the defensive line and at wide receiver. Someone like Butler could definitely garner a player or two who could bolster either unit.
So best start preparing yourself now Pats’ fans. It’ll be sad to see Butler go, but it won’t be the first time the Patriots have traded away a fan favorite and certainly won’t be the last.