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The Patriots secondary is strong. The big question is Malcolm Butler

Malcolm Butler has until Friday to field and/or sign an offer sheet from another club.Steven Senne/AP

The Patriots made an uncharacteristic early splash in free agency last month, signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract.

The signing of the 6-foot-1-inch, 190-pounder further bolstered a secondary that already was considered one of the league’s best and was likely done with an eye toward defending some of the bigger receivers on New England’s schedule this season.

Atlanta’s Julio Jones and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin are just two tall targets the Patriots will need to deal with in 2017.

The big question now is, who starts opposite Gilmore?

Malcolm Butler is the incumbent but his status is in limbo as a restricted free agent. The three-year veteran, who has played at a Pro Bowl level the last two seasons, has until Friday to field and/or sign an offer sheet from another club. The Patriots would then have the right to match it or receive a first-round pick.

Butler’s other option is to sign his $3.91 million tender. If he does, he will remain in Foxborough or be traded. New Orleans, which hosted Butler on a visit, is still a possible destination. The Saints have two first-round picks — Nos. 11 and 32, the latter of which was obtained from New England in the Brandin Cooks deal.


There are other in-house candidates should Butler end up elsewhere. Eric Rowe, who emerged last season, as well as Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, and Jonathan Jones will compete for time.

Rowe has excellent length (6-1, 205 pounds), long arms, and good speed. He caught on quickly after an early-season trade and will get plenty of snaps regardless of whether Butler stays or goes.

Coleman (5-11, 190 pounds) is aggressive and physical. His coverage skills could use some polishing but he will be in the mix.

Cyrus Jones had a miserable rookie season but maintained a positive outlook and his confidence never wavered. Jones (5-10, 200 pounds) is tough and strong and will challenge for time as the nickel.


Jonathan Jones has exceptional quickness and speed — perhaps only Matthew Slater is faster on this roster. He appears smaller than his listed 5-10, 190 pounds but has great mirror skills and looked completely comfortable in his limited snaps on defense. He’ll be a Pro Bowl special teamer before all is said and done.

New England could look to the draft or bring in a veteran free agent (Jason McCourty? Darrelle Revis?) to add depth, depending on how the Butler saga plays out.

The Patriots are stacked at safety. The starting duo of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung is arguably the best in the league. Add in Duron Harmon as the center fielder and this group is as good as it gets.

McCourty is smart, tough, and versatile. He can play deep and protect the back end with his underrated coverage skills but he can also play close to the line and provide valuable run support.

Chung also is smart, tough, and versatile. He can play in the slot and cover tight ends despite what is usually a size mismatch. Chung is an exceptional tackler — quite possibly the best in the league.

Harmon is instinctive, rangy, and has a nose for the ball.

Nate Ebner (he’s smart and tough) and Jordan Richards (he’s smart and strong) provide depth. Brandon King is listed as a safety but works out with the linebackers and does his damage on special teams.


Safety doesn’t appear to be a draft need but the Patriots could take a flier on somebody who catches their eye in the later rounds.


Primary 2016 starters: Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan.

Expected 2017 starters: Butler, Stephon Gilmore.

53-man depth chart: Butler, Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, Justin Coleman.

Possible draft option: Jeremy Cutrer, Middle Tennessee (seventh round/UFA). At 6 feet 1 inch, 170 pounds, Cutrer is a legitimate bone rack. He’s also a legitimate prospect with excellent length, mirror skills, fluidity, and toughness. He needs to pack on some pounds or his aggressive nature could lead to multiple injuries. He’s a project that could pay off.


Primary 2016 starters: Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung.

Projected 2017 starters: McCourty, Chung.

53-man depth chart: McCourty, Chung, Duron Harmon, Jordan Richards, Nate Ebner, Brandon King.

Possible draft target: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Louisville (seventh round/UFA). Harvey-Clemons possesses a unique blend of size (6-4, 228 pounds), speed, and athleticism for the position. This guy will not get pushed around. Has played free and strong safety and can also line up in the slot and blanket smaller receivers. It’s that kind of versatility the Patriots covet.

Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.