FOXBOROUGH — Malcolm Butler is now officially under contract with the Patriots for the 2017 season.
Whether he plays for the Patriots this fall is another story.
Butler signed his first-round restricted free agent tender from the Patriots on Tuesday, which sets his salary at $3.91 million this season. The move ends any possibility of Butler signing an offer sheet with the Saints or another team by the April 21 deadline, which would have netted the Patriots a first-round draft pick in return.
On paper, the Patriots have one of the best cornerback duos in the league — Butler, the Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback the past two years, and Stephon Gilmore, a big, physical cornerback who was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
But Butler and the Patriots still may part ways, and quickly. A trade to the Saints is still in play, and it likely would happen before the start of the NFL Draft on April 27.
Butler, the Super Bowl XLIX hero who has developed into one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks the past two years, has been frustrated because he has not received a suitable contract offer from the Patriots — a frustration that multiplied in March when the Patriots gave Gilmore, the former Bills cornerback, a five-year, $65 million contract with $31 million in full guarantees.
Butler, 27, has made NFL minimum salaries the past three years, and is eager to strike it rich this offseason. He could possibly make more money as an unrestricted free agent next offseason, but at 28 he’ll be older than most free agents, and he would carry the risk of injury or diminished play this season. A trade would work out well for Butler, too, as it almost certainly will come with a new, long-term contract.
Butler visited the Saints on March 16, and though the Saints wouldn’t sign him to an offer sheet (which would have required them giving the No. 11 overall pick to the Patriots), a sign-and-trade is still in play.
That Butler signed the tender before the start of the NFL Draft is another sign a trade with the Saints is coming. The Patriots would be far less inclined to trade Butler this offseason if their compensation would only be 2018 draft picks, but now the road is clear for them to execute a trade in the next nine days for 2017 picks.
The Saints’ 11th overall pick is likely out of the question, but their No. 32 pick is certainly in play. The Patriots originally sent that pick to the Saints in March for receiver Brandin Cooks, and an obvious trade would be the Saints sending No. 32 back to the Patriots for Butler.
But the Saints also hold pick No. 42 in the second round and Nos. 76 and 103 in the third round. The Patriots don’t have a draft pick until No. 72 in the third round, and might prefer a package of multiple picks instead of No. 32.
Speaking at a predraft news conference Tuesday, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio dodged questions about Butler’s situation. When asked if the team was planning on having Butler on the team this fall, Caserio responded, “Right now we’re focused on getting ready for the draft.”
“That’s where the focus is. I don’t anticipate that many transactions here between now and next Thursday or Friday. Could that change? I mean, look, it’s the National Football League. Things can change in a heartbeat. So our focus is on getting ready for the draft and trying to put together the best team possible.”
If Butler is traded, then the Patriots will have discarded both starting cornerbacks from last year’s Super Bowl team. They also declined to re-sign Logan Ryan, who ended up signing a three-year, $30 million deal with Tennessee.
The Patriots signed Gilmore to be the new No. 1 cornerback, and also have Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones, and Justin Coleman at the position. If they trade Butler, the Patriots would likely need to draft or sign another starting cornerback, with veterans such as Darrelle Revis, Jason McCourty, and Alterraun Verner still available. Caserio said Butler’s situation won’t affect the Patriots’ draft strategy.
“Our philosophy on the draft is to add good football players to our team, however we do that,” Caserio said. “So whoever those players are, whatever positions they play, that’s always been the most important thing for us and that’s not going to change.”