Contrary to popular belief, the signing of cornerback Stephon Gilmore does not mean that Malcolm Butler is on his way out of New England.
The Patriots signed Gilmore on Thursday — the first day of NFL free agency — to a five-year, $65 million deal, with $40 million guaranteed. This comes after the team assigned a first-round tender on Butler, which will pay him $3.91 million for the upcoming season.
Butler is a restricted free agent. He can go out and sign a contract with another team, but the Patriots have the right to match that same offer, which would keep him in New England. If the Patriots refused to match that offer, then they’d receive a first-round pick from the team that signed him.
Instead of working out a multi-year extension like that of Gilmore’s, perhaps this is Bill Belichick’s way of saying, “Go out and see how much you’re worth.” But I certainly don’t think the Patriots signed Gilmore to be Butler’s replacement. Not for the immediate future, at least.
By not locking up Butler to a big contract, it’s clear that the two sides are not on the same page when it comes to what Butler should be paid. Maybe that changes. Maybe it doesn’t.
The most likely result of it all is that the 27-year-old Butler plays at the discounted rate of $3.91 million in 2017. And for what Butler provides on the field, “discounted” is an understatement. Which is why the threat of an offer sheet seems like such a strong possibility to those wondering what Gilmore’s contract means for the Super Bowl XLIX hero.
Some have even used that threat to convince themselves Butler will be traded, especially after a report broke on Thursday, saying the Patriots and Saints were considering a trade that would send Butler to New Orleans and wide receiver Brandin Cooks to New England.
I’m sure the Patriots consider everything. And seeing that they’ve reportedly been trying to acquire Cooks this off-season, a Butler-for-Cooks swap wasn’t such an outrageous idea in the immediate aftermath of Gilmore’s big contract with the Pats.
However, that trade would be reactionary. And I don’t think Belichick plays that game. Instead, it’s more likely that Belichick embraces the control he has over Butler, and if he really wants Cooks, finds another way to acquire him.
Humor me for a moment. Let’s say nobody signs Butler to an offer sheet. And then you place the franchise tag on him in 2018 at the age of 28, which would project to be somewhere around $15 million. Then you franchise him again in 2019 at the age of 29, which would project to be, let’s say, $17 million. I’m shooting from the hip with those franchise-tag numbers, while basing it on the cornerback increase in previous years.
Add in the $3.91 million that Butler is now expected to play for in 2017, and you would be paying him just under $36 million over three years, the final three years of his 20’s. That comes out to an average-annual salary of $12 million, which would be around the same average-annual salary that Gilmore will make. And the $36 million would be just a little less than Gilmore’s guaranteed $40 million.
Is that fair to Butler? Since it’s not guaranteed, of course not. But perhaps the $12 million per year is the value that Belichick placed on Butler anyways. The Patriots are all about value. And if they have an opportunity to take advantage of controlling a player the way they seemingly can control Butler the next few years, then I would expect them to do it.
Look, I’d prefer they just sign Butler to a multi-year extension. And perhaps that will still happen. All I’m telling you is, even if it doesn’t, Butler doesn’t have to be moved just because they signed Gilmore to a big deal.
For that reason, it would make more sense for the next big move to be trading Jimmy Garoppolo instead. If for nothing else, to open up the Franchise Tag for Butler in 2018.
With Garoppolo entering the final year of his deal, the Patriots would have to franchise Garoppolo next off-season if they still wanted to trade him instead of letting him walk via free agency. The risk for the Patriots, at that point, would be that they can’t move him and have to pay their backup quarterback over $20 million in 2018. And if you’re going to pay someone big money under the franchise tag, it might as well be one of your best defensive starters.
Point is, the Patriots don’t have to trade Butler if they don’t want to. And they shouldn’t want to, because until somebody signs him to an offer sheet, he’s under Belichick’s control.
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