Thursday, March 16, 2017

Butler, Agent's Impatience Could Mean Patriots' Secondary Looking Much Different

Malcolm Butler was Pro Football Focus's number three-rated coverage cornerback in the entire National Football League last season, and with him in the lineup, the New England Patriots' secondary was rated the third-best in the National Football League.

Coincidence?  Hardly, but one also has to take into account that free safety Devin McCourty earned the title of top coverage safety in the league, while centerfielder Duron Harmon ranks second only to Seattle's Earl Thomas as the best single-high safety in professional football - not to mention that erstwhile slot corner Logan Ryan graded out as a top-ten coverage man at that spot.

But while Ryan has moved on to play with McCourty's twin brother in Tennessee, the remainder of the aforementioned top-three secondary is intact, with former Buffalo Bill Stephon Gilmore adding his press-man ability to that mix, a move that was underwhelming Patriots' fans, given the money he was offered and the potential backlash in the locker room.

That backlash comes in the form of Butler, who has been rumored by one source to be terribly frustrated by the Gilmore contract, and said to be looking forward to working with Gilmore by another.  It all has all the sounds of either a megalo-maniacal agent gone rogue or a collective of mother hen beat writers trying to generate page views - or both.

At the center of all of the madness is Huntsville, Alabama attorney Derek Simpson, who considers being a sports agent a hobby and a part-time job and whose only client is Butler.  The two have formed a fast friendship, which is fortunate for Simpson, because if he didn't have Butler as a client, he would have lost his certification as an agent this coming summer as NFL rules specify that an agent must have at least one client in the NFL for three consecutive years.

Simpson once gave Butler some advice, telling him to take two post-it notes and fix them to his bathroom mirror - one had the number "3" written on it to represent the average length, in years, of an NFL career, and the other had the floating decimal "78.8", which represents the percentage of former NFL players who eventually file for bankruptcy.

Sage advice to be sure, but Butler's path to the big time dictated that he had to start small, as in rookie minimum salary, and work his way into a bigger contract that could be the start of life-long financial security, a start that began with the Patriots placing a first-round tender on the restricted free agent, a marker that was scheduled to pay him just shy of $4 million in 2017.

That may have been enough for Butler had the Patriots not opened the vault for Gilmore, who earned his bones through five years in Buffalo as a first-round draft pick who had to wait for the Bills to pick up his fifth-year option in 2016 before he made any heavy money.

And that's the rub.  Rookie salaries are capped in the NFL, and depending on where a player is drafted, the cap is either higher or lower - and as the tenth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Gilmore was capped at a four-year total of $12 million, fully guaranteed, with most of that ($7.2 million) locked up in a signing bonus which made him an instant millionaire.

Last season on the fifth-year option, which is available only to players who were selected in the first round of the draft, Gilmore made transition tag money, totaling just over $11 million, all the while holding out of OTA's in protest of not being signed to a long-term extension by the Bills.  As it turns out, the Bills offered Gilmore a five-year deal worth $10.5 million per season, but he turned it down, wanting "Josh Norman" money...

...and while he fell short of Josh Norman's contract, what he got from New England was close enough to what the Bills offered him to wonder if Gilmore didn't just want to get out of the losing culture in Bufalo.

Lesson being, although he bitched and railed about money, Gilmore had to wait to get the contract he desired, while Butler and his agent seem to not want to take things as they come - which is unfortunate, as a Butler-Gilmore-Rowe trifecta in the standard nickle package probably would have been the top unit in all of football.

But pending a trade being worked out between the Patriots and Saints, the question looms: what's next for the Patriots' secondary?

Assuming that Butler will be gone and knowing that Ryan already is, the top two corner spots will go to Gilmore and Eric Rowe, twin 6' 1" press-man corners with deep speed - though Rowe, a former college safety,  is equally impressive in zone and is better in run support than Gilmore.  Who plays in the single slot is up in the air, but after a disastrous rookie campaign, Cyrus Jones could be the man.

Jones had his issues with ball security and decision making in the return game, fumbling four times and inexplicably failing to dodge a bouncing punt that hit him in the leg - but early trouble seems to be a staple of Jones' game, as are miraculous recoveries.  He's been a cornerback for just three years - his last two seasons in college after making the transition from wide receiver and his rookie season in Foxborough - and has always embraced adversity...

...and lord knows he had plenty of that last season, so Patriots' fans are about to witness either a complete turnaround as a slot corner or a colossal bust.  Beyond Jones is his college nemesis from Auburn, Jonathan Jones, who has blazing speed (4.33) and specializes in -you guessed it - press-man coverage and does his best work in a phone booth, making him a perfect slot man despite his demure (5' 8") frame.

There's also Justin Coleman who has shown promise in limited action, but if none of these three make the nut, the Patriots could spend mid-round draft capital on a corner in the draft.  Free agency?  Well, three of the top corners remaining have played for the Patriots in the recent past as there's no reason to believe the team is interested in bringing any of them back.

The Patriots spent a second round pick on Darius Butler back in 2009, but was waived tow seasons later and after an initial stop in Carolina eventually found a home in Indianapolis.  Sterling Moore had his 15 minutes of fame as a safety, stripping a potential game-winning touchdown out of Baltimore's Lee Evan's hands, helping to send New England to a Super Bowl...

...and Darrelle Revis won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2014 - but while many Patriots' fans are ecstatic about Revis beating the rap and becoming available on the open market, the fact of the matter remains that both Malcolm Butler and Brandon Browner had more success in Matt Patricia's  defense down the stretch than the fading Revis did.

He has since put on about 25 pounds and at age 32 is looking for a switch to safety to try and revive and extend his career, but the price tag is too steep even if he was still the owner of the mythical "Revis Island', and he's made a direct pitch to play for his hometown Steelers, putting the Rooney's on the spot.

In short, there are no decent options on the open market other than Gilmore's battery mate in Buffalo, slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was recently released by the Bills.  Familiarity between Gilmore and Robey-Coleman wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, and would give the Patriots a young (25), coachable slot corner with four years of experience in a phone booth.

But, of course, this is all dependent on Butler leaving for New Orleans as seems destined to happen - whether it does or not, Patriots' fans should know better than to doubt the team building skills of Belichick.

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