The meaning behind the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is fitting for the Patriots’ reunion with cornerback Malcolm Butler.
After four years away from the organization and a one-year retirement, Butler is returning to where it all began on a two-year contract worth a total value of $9 million with New England.
Although the storylines surrounding his return are mainly about his benching by Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LII, the more pressing question for the current Pats is, can Butler still play?
Since losing Pro Bowler J.C. Jackson to the Chargers in free agency, the Patriots need corners badly. Their current depth chart is slot corner Jon Jones, Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell, Myles Bryant, Joejuan Williams, Shaun Wade, and now Butler. Not exactly encouraging.
Furthermore, with six-time Pro Bowler Tyreek Hill joining the division and Davante Adams flipping from the NFC to the Raiders in the AFC, New England’s schedule is filled with challenging wide receiver matchups and high-powered passing attacks.
The hope is that the 32-year-old Butler will be motivated and fresh after a year off to play at a starter-level in a defense that he thrived in to start his NFL career.
(via Pro Football Focus)
In his last NFL season as a member of the Titans in 2020, Butler, for both better and worse, was eerily similar on film as the player he was for the Patriots in his final season in New England.
After a thorough review of Butler’s 2020 tape, his competitiveness and instincts in coverage continued to stand out as they did in his first stint with the Patriots from 2014 to 2017.
Here, Butler plays the deep-third in a cover-three scheme to the three-receiver side. The Colts run a New England concept, an outside hitch paired with an inside seam route, and Butler makes a great play on the ball. He knows the short zone defender is dropping into the passing window for the hitch route as a flat zone, so he gets his eyes inside to number two. Number two runs a vertical seam pattern, and Butler jumps the route for one of his five interceptions on the season.
Along with ball-hawking instincts from zone coverages, Butler’s ability to stay glued to his man in a trail technique was still present on his tape.
In this play, Butler matches up with Vikings star Justin Jefferson as the inside slot receiver (#3). Butler plays a trail technique out of cover-one, which he’ll do a lot with the Pats, where he’s going to stay on the outside hip of the receiver and play underneath the route. Butler uses his safety help in the deep middle of the field to protect over the top and then play the receivers’ hands at the catch point if targeted. Kirk Cousins tries to get the ball to Jefferson, and Butler makes a nice diving pass breakup.
Another staple of Butler’s game throughout his career is staying glued to quick-hitting routes over the middle.
Butler matches up with Allen Robinson on the bottom of the screen above. Robinson uses a stretch release to simulate a fade route to open up the slant. But Butler makes a quick transition out of a soft-press technique and gets himself in front of Robinson to break up the pass.
Much like his 2017 season with the Pats, Butler was capable in man coverage coming across the middle or driving on underneath throws. Plus, he has a knack for finding the football in zone coverage.
However, the flaw in his game that consistently follows him over the years is that Butler struggles to make plays on the ball at the catch point, losing his fair share of 50/50 plays downfield.
Granted, the Titans put him in some challenging matchups with elite playmakers such as Jefferson, Robinson, Davante Adams, Marvin Jones, and others.
Still, when Butler was tasked with playing man coverage on the outside against top-tier competition, he was often close enough to his man to attempt to make a play on the football. But he couldn’t finish through the catch point to get his hands on the ball, leading to big plays for the opposition.
The good news is that the Patriots will remember Butler’s strengths and weaknesses to keep him away from downfield ball-winners on the boundary.
But the issues he has in contested situations leads to chunk gains for opposing offenses, which the Patriots might need to live with from time to time if Butler becomes a regular contributor.
Although it’s hard to predict how a player will respond after a year away from the game, it can rejuvenate a players’ body and give them a second life in their career (cough, Gronk, cough).
The Patriots need serviceable outside cornerback play as they search for younger players at the position to take the mantle from J.C. Jackson.
Even if Butler doesn’t return to his former Pro Bowl form, the player the Titans got in the 2020 season would be a useful piece for Bill Belichick’s secondary.