Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Butler, Agent Playing Hardball With Belichick A Losing Proposition

Thursday came and went.  So did Friday, and still, there was no deal in New Orleans for Malcolm Butler. Saturday and Sunday didn't look any different, either.

The Butler to the New Orleans Saints saga has been dragged out into a new week with the teams reportedly not even close to finalizing anything - which is to be expected since the teams can not legally discuss so much as what's for dinner as long as Butler is involved, since he hasn't signed his first-round tender in some sort of preternatural power play that can't be sitting well with Patriots' head ball coach and defacto general manager Bill Belichick.

Of course, Belichick has seen this before and took the appropriate measures to have himself covered in many ways long before the free agency period began - as Patriots' fans will remember another disgruntled employee by the name of Wes Welker whose monetary demands - not to mention his big mouth - leading up to the 2013 free agency period were met with disdain by Belichick, who opted out of the whole mess by signing Danny Amendola and closing the door on Welker.

But Welker was a soon-to-be 32 year old unrestricted free agent who over-estimated his value on the open market and burned every bridge he could find on his way out of New England, while Butler is a 27 year old restricted free agent entering the prime of his career - so like it or not, Belichick has been forced to deal with Butler and his weird, part-time agent, and it's been somewhat of a bumpy ride...

...in fact, it's been a tangled, roundabout deal that has had all of the drama of a mid-afternoon soap opera mixed with a smattering of Jerry Maquire - and just the fact that the New England Patriots are involved made football fans across the globe crazy with intrigue, if not disgust.

Intrigue, because the Saints have been pulling all of the wrong strings on defense ever since winning their first title back in 2009, and have committed to addressing their deficiencies by trading away their top skill position player on offense to make it happen.  The disgust?  That comes from the Patriots maybe losing their top cornerback from their championship season, and still got stronger on both sides of the ball at the same time...

...and if the Butler to New Orleans deal somehow happens to go through, Belichick will have shiny, new draft capital to spend in Philadelphia in late April.

Originally, in the days leading up to the new league year, the Patriots placed a first-round tender on their restricted free agent cornerback, which mandated that any team that wished to sign Butler to an offer sheet had to do so with the knowledge that the Patriots had ten days to match the offer and keep Butler, or decline to match any offer and let Butler walk away, but at the price of his new team's first-round draft pick.

Depending on how you look at it, that's either a steep price to pay - in that a first round draft pick it the top capital that any team possesses to select players coming out of college - or it's worth giving up that high in capital for a young, proven player that comes with little ambiguity, a view of the situation that comes straight from the Bill Belichick book of team building.

Belichick has long been the alpha scavenger, feeding on players that other teams have trained to be football players in the league - bringing them in, making them professionals, and adding their distinctiveness to the collective, which allows him to open up his playbook in a way that no other team can, and the results are impossible to argue with.

He's not used to other teams trying to pull the condor gambit on his own players, however, but just like with any negative scenario - whether on the field or off - has a plan in place to twist the advantage back around to his own team.

Just the fact that he tendered Butler at the first round level makes one wonder if Belichick had already caught wind that the grumblings from the Butler camp were going to cause waves, something made even more sensible considering that on the first day of free agency he went deep into the vault to bring in ex-Buffalo Bills' corner Stephon Gilmore...

...a move that many are claiming was the impetus for Butler's frustration, when in reality, Belichick was just covering his own ass in the event Butler did blow up in his face.

Ever the leverage junkie, Belichick now has Gilmore under contract to pair with 2016 pickup Eric Rowe, both softening the blow of potentially losing Butler as well as hammering home the idea that if Butler wanted to remain with New England, he was going to do so on Belichick's terms, not his own.

Nobody holds Belichick hostage, at least not without paying a price, but while Butler and his agent would like the appearance of having the upper hand over Belichick and the Patriots - what with their refusal to sign the first-round tender - it is really Belichick who holds the cards, and Team Butler is eventually going to have to submit to Belichick's will.

There are four things that can happen, and Butler controls none of the outcomes:

First, and most simplistic, Butler can sign an offer sheet from the Saints after signing his first round tender, and the Patriots can either match what is certain to be a long-term deal, or, second, they can decline to match the offer and let Butler walk in exchange for the Saints' original first round draft pick, which is 11th overall in the 2017 draft.

Third, Butler and the Saints can work out a contract and eschew protocol by working out a trade with New England which will almost certainly contain either the 32nd overall pick in the draft, or a combination of the Saints' second rounder (41st overall) and third rounder (76th overall).  The 32nd pick originally belonged to the Patriots, who sent it to New Orleans for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.

Fourth, Butler can continue to play hard ball and refuse to sign his tender while seeking a long-term contract, in which case Belichick would just leave him to stew in his own juices, secure in the knowledge that even though Butler is not under contract, his 2017 rights belong to the Patriots, meaning that he would have to sit out, which would destroy his market value, not to mention he wouldn't accrue a fourth league year and would be right back where he started at the beginning of this mess.

There are advantages to the first three scenarios, but nobody wins if the fourth plays out - except the Saints, that is, as they still would have two first round picks.

The second of those two first-rounders, incidentally, was the price that New England paid to acquire third-year speedster Brandin Cooks from the Saints, capital that Belichick really didn't want to part with, and wouldn't have had to had Butler played nice and signed his tender as the original plan was to send Butler and a third-round pick to New Orleans for Cooks...

...and there is still hope that the Patriots can recoup that pick, number 32 overall, but it's going to take Butler and his agent playing ball and agreeing to an offer sheet that the cap-starved Saints can work under their ceiling and still leave enough room to sign their draft picks, which under the current rookie wage scale is going to cost them around $4 million in 2017.

But where there's a will, there's a way - and Belichick's will is stronger than anyone else's in the league.

In the end, Belichick will either end up with Butler and Gilmore manning their starting cornerback spots or they will have fleeced the Saints into giving them a top-end deep threat for what amounts to a third round draft pick.

Either way, Belichick - and the Patriots - win.  Again.

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