Greatness has shuffled through Foxboro at pretty much every position on the field since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000.
Cornerback is no exception. Ty Law is already in the Patriots Hall of Fame and deserving of a bust in Canton someday. Asante Samuel was first team All-Pro in 2007, Aqib Talib revitalized New England’s secondary upon his arrival in 2012, and who can forget the credibility Darrelle Revis restored to the position in 2014.
Malcolm Butler has since proven that he’s much more than just a folk hero for his heroics on the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX, starting all 32 regular season games since then for the Patriots. He’s a bona fide stud at cornerback, which seems to be a prerequisite for all Super Bowl hopefuls in today’s NFL.
Having a shutdown corner on even one side of the field is a luxury for any team. Butler’s presence has given New England just that, but with Buffalo defector Stephon Gilmore now playing across from him, it’s fair to ask: do the Patriots have the best cornerback tandem in the league?
It’s an unlikely pairing in a number of respects, given the meteoric rise of Butler since he picked off Russell Wilson, as compared to the gradual buildup of Gilmore’s skill set. Butler went undrafted out of West Alabama in 2014, while Gilmore was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 draft out of an SEC school (South Carolina).
Gilmore never made the postseason in five years with the Bills; Butler’s worst finish in three seasons with the Patriots has been a loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Gilmore parlayed the best season of his career in 2016 – a personal-high in both interceptions (5) and “Approximate Value,” or AV (8) on Pro Football Reference, as well as his first Pro Bowl berth – into a massive payday on day one of free agency in March. Butler awaits his patiently, restricted free agency now behind him.
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For the lack of similarities in many regards between the two, confidence appears to be a common bond for the corners.
At 5-foot-11, Butler gives up a few inches to some of the NFL’s taller wide receivers on the outside. That doesn’t make a difference to him.
When asked earlier this week how much confidence he had going against bigger receivers, Butler replied “a lot.”
“I treat everybody the same,” he expanded. “Big, small, it doesn’t matter.”
Gilmore is two inches taller than Butler. Confidence oozes out of his 6-foot-1 frame, saying he has faith in his strength to slow down receivers with his hands.
“I play with great technique and get my hands on them,” Gilmore said. “I feel like I can control any receiver I go against.”
While neither player has come right out and said as such, each has hinted at their feelings toward being the No. 1 cornerback pairing in the league throughout the first two weeks of training camp.
“I think so,” Butler said on Monday when asked if he feels the tandem is near the top of the league. “I think he [Gilmore] feels that way, I think I feel that way too. It’s most definitely coming along.”
“We’ve just got to come out and get better every day,” Gilmore said last week on the matter. “Malcolm, he’s a great player. I’m coming over and just trying to prove myself every day. We’ve got to go out there and prove ourselves every year, so it’s going to be a challenge but I think we’re going to be good for it.”
New England’s secondary as a whole ranked third in the NFL in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Butler was ranked as the No. 4 overall corner with a grade of 90.8 (out of 100) and the No. 3 overall coverage corner, with a grade of 91.1.
With starting safeties Devin McCourty – the top safety in coverage in 2016, per PFF – and Patrick Chung also back in the fold, Gilmore is having little trouble getting right up to speed with the ebb and flow of how the Patriots do things.
After New England’s intrasquad scrimmage last Friday, Gilmore noted just how much he was being helped out by his fellow starters in the defensive backfield.
“I’m getting better and better with the terminology, they’re helping me out a lot,” Gilmore said. “Us having days like this, where it’s a game-type situation, it helps out a lot."
During joint practice sessions with Jacksonville this week, Butler and Gilmore have had their chance to shine against real opposition. Butler picked off Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles during 11-on-11s on Monday, while each player caused fits for Bortles on Tuesday; Butler broke up three passes in the scrimmage and Gilmore knocked away two.
Perhaps the biggest area Gilmore excelled in last season for Buffalo was on stopping comeback and hitch routes. PFF noted that Gilmore had three of his five interceptions against the route, declaring him their "honorable mention" in the category.
Talib was named the best at defending comebacks and hitches by PFF. Along with Chris Harris Jr. in Denver, Talib is one half of perhaps the only cornerback duo that could stake its claim to the top spot ahead of Butler and Gilmore.
The Talib/Harris tandem isn’t all that different from the Butler/Gilmore tag team. Talib, a former first round pick, was a high-priced free agent signing for the Broncos. Harris, like Butler, was undrafted out of college (coincidentally, both Talib and Harris attended the University of Kansas).
Talib and Harris have won a Super Bowl together. Butler has two rings, but he hasn’t won a title playing opposite Gilmore.
The Patriots aren’t just Super Bowl favorites; they’re favored to win every single one of their games. Butler and Gilmore playing to the best of their abilities is a cylinder the Patriots need firing in their quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy come February.