FOXBOROUGH — When Malcolm Butler checked into last Sunday’s game midway through the second quarter and lined up opposite Emmanuel Sanders, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning did what any five-time NFL MVP with the most touchdown passes in league history would do: He immediately tested the Patriots rookie.
Sanders didn’t even put a move on Butler, instead just running an outside go route, since it was a third-and-20 play from deep inside Denver territory. Manning threw long for Sanders, but the ball was overthrown, and fell harmlessly incomplete.
As for Butler? He ran stride-for-stride with the Broncos receiver, turned his head back for the football at the correct time, and was in perfect position to make a play, had the pass been on target.
Frequently during the Patriots’ 43-21 win, when Butler was covering Sanders, Manning targeted the pair, because he obviously liked the matchup. And Sanders caught his share of passes against the cornerback, finishing the game with 10 receptions for 151 yards.
But Butler held his own, too. While other cornerbacks were playing just four defensive snaps (Logan Ryan) or were healthy scratches (Alfonzo Dennard), the Patriots repeatedly sent out a 24-year-old undrafted rookie from West Alabama to play a highly visible and important role against maybe the best passing offense in football. He logged a career-high 36 snaps (out of 80 plays), made four tackles, and was credited with one pass defended.
That speaks to how highly the Patriots think of Butler, who knew, by the way, that Manning was going to throw at him.
“Oh, of course. New number, new face, most definitely,” Butler said Wednesday, after the Patriots had their only bye-week practice. “I think I did OK. Everything wasn’t perfect. I made some bad plays, I made a couple good plays. It was 50/50.”
Just being on the field for such an anticipated regular-season game was the latest chapter in a tale that might stretch the boundaries of belief.
Occasionally, there are circuitous routes a player takes to reach the NFL. Butler’s is one of those journeys.
He began his college career at Hinds Community College, in his native Mississippi, before transferring to West Alabama, a Division 2 school, in time for the 2012 season. He spent two years with the Tigers and twice was named all-conference, but wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine for draft hopefuls.
What happened next wasn’t a surprise. There were 35 cornerbacks drafted by NFL teams in 2014. Butler was not among them. He signed with the Patriots as a free agent on May 19, and was one of many undrafted rookies who reported for training camp, the chances of sticking somewhere between slim and none.
But then Butler started making plays, in practice and preseason games: breaking up passes, forcing fumbles, grabbing interceptions.
“He had a lot of ‘wow’ moments,” said Duron Harmon, a second-year safety. “This is a guy that wasn’t drafted, but I believe wholeheartedly that he thought he belonged here. He went out there with a lot of confidence in his ability, and you saw he wanted to be here, he was working hard to be here. Now he’s here.”
Butler is the only undrafted rookie on the Patriots’ 53-man roster. Did he ever stop to consider the long odds stacked against him?
“Of course I did,” he said. “But I chose to think positive. If you think positive, you’ll get positive results. If you think negative, you’ll get negative results. I just knew it would be tough, so I had to show up, stand out, and do my job.”
Heads were turned in OTAs, then training camp, then preseason games. Butler made the team, and has played in five of the Patriots’ first nine games. He has been inactive twice, and suited up but didn’t see the field against Oakland and Buffalo.
For the season, he has eight tackles and four passes defended, while getting roughly 33 percent of the defensive snaps in the games he’s played.
“He’s got a good burst, he’s got good speed, he’s very competitive on the ball, he’s got good instincts with ball skills,” said Josh Boyer, the Patriots’ cornerbacks coach. “A lot of it is him just learning the pro game, learning our system.
“There’s so many things that he has to learn, and really you can only do it by experience. You can’t just say, ‘All right, here’s everything you need to know, go out there and do it.’ There’s an experience thing that he’s working hard at, and that’s been the great thing, he’s continued to work hard at it.
“It’s like a lot of young guys, there’s a growing and learning process, which I think is starting to accelerate a little bit for him. He’s always worked hard on the field. He’s getting better, his game preparation is getting better, his work in the classroom is getting better.”
Jumping from Division 2 to the NFL as a rookie is rare but not unprecedented (defensive lineman Zach Moore, a sixth-round draft pick from Concordia University, is in the same category).
There’s a learning curve for most rookies, and if Sunday’s game is any indication, Butler is doing everything he can to stay ahead of it.
“Just help out the best way I can, and make sure my teammates believe that I can get the job done when I get in,” said Butler, when asked what his rookie goals are. “[Playing] lets me know I’m doing something well.
“I still have a whole lot of work to do, I really haven’t done anything yet . . . but it’s great to get playing time.”
Now, instead of hanging out in Livingston, Ala., and preparing for opponents such as Delta State and Shorter — not to mention serving as unofficial team barber — Butler is sitting next to veteran teammates such as Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and Devin McCourty, asking questions, and soaking up knowledge.
He has put the clippers away, at least for now.Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.