The New England Patriots are on the clock. Every day is a day closer to the beginning of the 2017 offseason, when a laundry list of big-name free agents could be taking their talents somewhere else.
There are still 16 regular-season and up to four postseason games between now and then, and anything can happen in that period. The Patriots would be wise to stay ahead of the curve with their most important players, but with linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower both facing the end of their Patriots careers, cornerback Malcolm Butler might have to wait on a new deal for the time being.
Let's start with Butler's absence from the Patriots' organized team activities on Thursday, coupled with the note from ESPN.com's Mike Reiss that he "wouldn't be surprised if [Butler's absence] was related to his contract status." Reiss continued:
Butler has told teammates and friends he plans to push for an adjustment to his contract before the 2016 season, and staying off the field in voluntary workouts would be a decision that limits injury risk and also could be viewed as a statement to the organization that he's unhappy with the status quo and/or the movement/specifics of contract talks.
Butler signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and is set to count $600,000 against the salary cap in 2016, according to Over the Cap. He will become a restricted free agent in 2017 if he and the Patriots are unable to reach an agreement on a new deal.
As an unrestricted free agent, Butler's situation is complicated. Giving Butler a top-dollar contract would not be a smart move from a team perspective. The Patriots hold all the cards in negotiations, as they could hang onto his rights by using a first-, second- or original-round tender after the season.
If they go that route, Butler could still sign an offer sheet, and a competing team could make him a proposal for any amount of money over any number of years to put it out of reach for the Patriots.
That being said, the Patriots would have the right of first refusal—and they would receive draft-pick compensation in return, aligning with which tender they use. A first-round tender would fetch a first-round pick, second-round tender a second-round pick and original-round tender no pick since Butler was undrafted.
|Tender values, 2015|
But in terms of the possibility of a holdout, it's not as if Butler has stayed away from the Patriots. He took part in Fantasy Camp, a charity event with the team and corporate sponsors.
"One day it's going to come," he told reporters back in March, per Zack Cox of NESN.com.
You just can't ignore it. I'm just going with the flow, doing my job, making sure I come back in shape, make sure I come back ready to go. And if it happens, it happens. I want it to happen, but I can't control the things I can't control. I'm just playing football, glad to be in the NFL, glad to be a Patriots player, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.
As the team's top cornerback, he is clearly worth more than $600,000. The question is, how much more? Is he just the team's premier cornerback, or is he truly one of the league's best cornerbacks?
|Malcolm Butler's efficiency stats, 2015|
|Stats||Butler||NFL rank (79 qualify)|
According to Pro Football Focus, Butler was right around the middle of the pack in all the key efficiency indicators of coverage: snaps in coverage per target, per reception allowed, yards allowed per snap in coverage and passer rating. In 2015, he yielded just a 55.2 percent completion rate despite his 94.4 passer rating (skewed by seven touchdowns against just two interceptions).
Given Butler's performance since bursting onto the scene in Super Bowl 49—as well as his value relative to other cornerbacks in the league—he would be worth a first-round tender. Not only would this ensure the Patriots receive a first-round pick in the event Butler signs with another team, but the dollar figure would give the Patriots a tremendous discount compared to other cornerbacks of his skill level.
According to Over the Cap, the 20 highest-earning cornerbacks in the NFL are fetching at least $8 million per year.
There would be three possible results of a first-round tender: Butler would play for the Patriots for whatever the first-round tender is valued; he would sign another team's offer sheet and the Patriots would receive a first-round pick from that team in return; or the Patriots would match that offer sheet, essentially signing his long-term extension.
Not one of those scenarios seems too unpalatable when you think about it.