Down a starting cornerback after letting J.C. Jackson leave in free agency, the Patriots are holding a tryout Monday with a familiar — and perhaps unexpected — face.
Four years after he was a surprise benching in the Patriots’ loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII, cornerback Malcolm Butler is back in Foxborough for a tryout, a league source confirmed.
Butler, 32, is attempting a comeback after retiring from the NFL last August for personal reasons. A seven-year veteran, Butler last played in 2020 with the Titans, and had one of the best years of his career; he tied a career high with four interceptions, started all 16 games, and set a career high with 100 tackles.
Butler signed a one-year deal with Arizona last year that was fully guaranteed. He participated in training camp and was expected to be a key piece of the secondary, but he surprisingly retired in August.
The Cardinals released Butler from the reserve/retired list last month, and he already has worked out for two teams run by ex-Patriots — the Raiders (coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler) and Texans (GM Nick Caserio).
The Patriots lost Jackson to the Chargers, leaving Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones as starters at the position.
Also participating in Monday’s workout are running back Leonard Fournette and guard Ryan Bates, per ESPN and other reports.
That the Patriots and Butler are reconnecting certainly is surprising, given the ignominious way his Patriots career ended four years ago. Butler, who had played in 98 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in 2017, was benched for the 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.
Butler played just one snap on the punt team and didn’t appear on defense; he said he never got a straight answer from coach Bill Belichick as to why. Belichick has never provided a reason publicly, and Butler’s benching remains one of the great mysteries — and perhaps one of the biggest regrets — of the Patriots’ 22-year run under Belichick.
Butler was upset as he left U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis that night, but in subsequent interviews, he continually took the high road and rarely if ever criticized Belichick or the Patriots publicly.
The Super Bowl benching ultimately didn’t cost Butler in free agency that spring. He signed a five-year, $61 million deal with the Titans in 2018, and ended up making $36.5 million over three seasons.
“Those people were good to me while I was there [in New England],” Butler told the Globe in 2018. “It didn’t end the right way, but I’m a Tennessee Titan, I have moved on from that. I’ve got nothing but respect for those guys.”
Butler played for the Patriots from 2014-17 and became one of the most significant figures in franchise lore. An undrafted rookie in 2014 who worked at Popeye’s and had to try out in minicamp just to make the team, Butler became an instant sensation at the end of that season when he intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass in the end zone to seal the win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. The interception is one of the most famous plays in NFL history and brought the Patriots their first championship in 10 years.
Butler became a full-time starter for the Patriots in 2015, and started 54 of 56 games (including playoffs) over the next three seasons, making the Pro Bowl in 2015. Butler, who has 17 career interceptions in seven seasons, then played for the Titans from 2018-20.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.