Two weeks after seemingly every bounce went against the Packers en route to a scarring NFC Championship Game loss in Seattle, the Seahawks and their fans felt the agony of watching an enormous game slip through their fingers.
Somewhat ironically, benching Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl hero from that game, may have cost the Patriots another title.
They gave up a billion yards to the Eagles, over 370 to Nick Foles with 3 touchdowns, and allowed 41 points with Butler on the sidelines.
Just a season after his game-winning interception in the Super Bowl, Butler quickly established himself as one of the premiere corners in the league, mitigating the loss of Darrelle Revis from that title team.
But a year ago, reports bubbled that the Patriots were willing to trade Butler, possibly unwilling to meet his price with a 2018 free agency looming. The signatures on Stephon Gilmore’s 5-year $65 million deal in New England all but sealed Butler’s fate.
But don’t take any of this to suggest Butler can’t play. In fact, all he did was play this year for the Patriots, finishing with nearly 98% of defensive snaps.
Bill Belichick is hardly infallible when it comes to moving on from players, particularly of late.
After being shown the door, Chandler Jones became an All-Pro. Jamie Collins may not be quite to that level, but he wasn’t in New England either. Still, he’s been a solid addition in Cleveland.
And though Logan Ryan started slowly in Tennessee, his play improved as the season went along.
Allowing Butler to walk shouldn’t be a stamp of disapproval, nor should his benching in the Super Bowl.
No one can figure out why that happened. Even Eric Rowe, his replacement, wasn’t told about the move until right before kickoff.
The Patriots then proceeded to be set ablaze by a backup quarterback and a first-time head coach.
Butler will be 28 before playing a snap for his next team, which makes a long-term deal potentially risky.
Logan Ryan was just 26 last year and still, he got just a three-year deal from the Titans.
Janoris Jenkins and Dre Kirkpatrick each recently received five-year deals at age 27, but from teams that have undergone significant upheaval since then. The Giants, in particular, spent heavily on a defense that didn’t produce last year and Jenkins couldn’t recreate his dominating 2016 performance.
And though they’re clearly not the same caliber of player, the Packers signed Charles Woodson to a lucrative deal when he was 29. That was Ted Thompson, who has handed out big money to older players just a handful of times in his career.
Brian Gutekunst assumes the reigns and we have no way of knowing how he’ll approach free agency or signing older veteran players.
If Spotrac’s market value calculator tool is correct, Butler can expect a $13 million yearly average on his next contract. That’s what Gilmore got from the Patriots last offseason.
But how much does the Patriots disinterest in him hurt his value if at all? They wanted to trade him last offseason and benched him in the Super Bowl. Does that drive down his value?
Green Bay will have around $17 million in projected cap space with which to work, and given the cost of re-signing Morgan Burnett, the value relative to cost clearly lies with the cornerback.
Mike Pettine can make his defense work with just about any safeties. He’s proven that over the course of his career.
But corner is a premium position, much harder to hide, and much more valuable in terms of impact on the field. Furthermore, the Packers have Haha Clinton-Dix, Josh Jones and a top-15 pick (I see you Derwin James).
Signing Butler would allow the Packers to address other needs higher up in the draft while also adding a veteran corner at a key position.
Let’s assume comparable levels of play between Butler and Burnett: they’re solid but not great.
What’s the alternative for the Packers at each position? Letting Burnett walk means elevating Josh Jones and figuring out what to do about depth (That’s “Derwin,” D-E-R).
Eschewing a player like Butler means hoping Kevin King comes back healthy and improves, Randall keeps performing at a high level, and ...
And there lies the rub. The Packers don’t have a viable long term plan at corner. Relying on the improvement of an injured second-year player at the second-most valuable position on any defense should be scary for Green Bay. Drafting a corner at 14 could infuse this team with talent, but rookie corners are rarely impact players even high picks.
Doesn’t Malcolm Butler and Derwin James upgrade this defense significantly more than Morgan Burnett and Josh Jackson?
Not to mention, Burnett is already 29, so the same question of value relative to age applies.
A really good cornerback, albeit in the Patriots doghouse, has more value right away than a Swiss Army Knife like Burnett and that’s not even a shot at him. It’s just the nature of the position.
If the Packers signed Butler and changed nothing else about this defense, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue they already would have a better secondary than the defending Super Bowl champions.
That’s worth $13 million a year.
And wouldn’t a player who just had his team “give up” on him (his words) want to go to an NFC team with a great quarterback in a situation that could allow him to once again play Super Bowl hero against his old team?
That might even be worth a discount.