Butler heating up as he goes into difficult matchup with Steelers, Brown

Butler heating up as he goes into difficult matchup with Steelers, Brown

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler has come a long way since starting for the first time in Week 1 of last season, when he took on Steelers All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown. He went into that matchup as a Super Bowl hero, but since then he's become a Pro Bowler, and he's now in the conversation as one of New England's young stars who is deserving of a long-term contract. 

Butler will be a restricted free agent after this season, and he's in the middle of making another strong case for a deal that is exponentially more lucrative than the one that will pay him $600,000 in base salary for his efforts this season. Through six games, he's leading the league in pass deflections (eight), recording four last weekend in a win over the Bengals, including one breakup in the end zone while on AJ Green. 

"Just gotta be patient and let the receiver make their move," Butler said after the game. "He went outside, and his eyes got bit, so you gotta turn around and play the football."

Butler has allowed just 70 receiving yards over the course of the last four games, and he's allowing only 52.5 percent of throws sent his way to be completed, according to Pro Football Focus. Among corners who have played at least 300 snaps and seen 25 targets, that percentage is ninth best in the league, just behind Denver's Chris Harris (51.6 percent) and Tampa Bay's Brent Grimes (51.7) and just ahead of Denver's Aqib Talib (53.3) and Washington's Josh Norman (53.8). 

Having Butler at his best in Pittsburgh this weekend will be imperative for the Patriots as he could be lined up across from Brown for much of the afternoon. In last year's meeting, Brown got the best of the first-time starter, catching nine of the 10 targets he saw with Butler in coverage for 133 yards and a touchdown. 

It will be tougher for Brown to go off with backup Landry Jones at quarterback given that his production has tailed off when Ben Roethlisberger (out with a knee injury) is not on the field. Last season, with Michael Vick and Jones behind center, Brown averaged 5.5 fewer targets, 5.6 fewer catches and 64 fewer yards receiving than he did with Roethlisberger, per PFF. He also didn't score with Roethlisberger out.

The Steelers will, however, probably try to manufacture touches for one of the league's best offensive weapons, meaning Butler will have to do more than try to keep his run of pass breakups going. He'll also have to be prepared to stop any Steelers catch-and-run plays short before they turn into explosive gains. 

Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained on Friday that Butler's willingness to tackle is one of the positive aspects of his game. 

"I think one of the biggest things is just the desire to tackle," Belichick said. "I think I've coached a lot of defensive backs, but Malcolm would go in this category of, you know, when a guy catches a pass on you, you really want to tackle him. And tackle him hard. I think you see that. There's a certain type of defensive back that has that mentality, like, 'If they catch one, I'm really gonna try to tackle him as hard as I can because he caught one on me.' I think you see a lot of Malcolm's tackles like that . . . 

"[Undrafted rookie corner] Jon Jones is kind of like that, too. He's not the biggest guy, but like Malcolm, he's tough and wants to tackle and wants to use his size and his quickness, usually to tackle low, but to get those guys on the ground and wrap them up. I'd say a lot of it's desire. Some of it's technique. There's definitely an element of playing strength in there. But desire is probably No. 1. Guys that really want to tackle are usually competitive tacklers. Guys that don't want to tackle aren't competitve tacklers."

Chalk it up as one of the many things the Patriots have learned about Butler since bringing him aboard, making him a starter, and sticking him on one of the game's best receivers for his first full-time assignment last year.

"He's gained a lot of experience," Belichick said. "He's done a lot of different things. At times we've matched. At times we haven't matched. At times he's played inside in some sub situations. Most of the time he's outside, but not exclusively. We have zone calls, man calls, he's learned a lot. He's improved a lot in all of those areas . . . He's come a long way."

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

What Bill Belichick's pro day tour tells us about Patriots draft strategy

It’s one of the rites of spring. This is the time of year NFL fans across America overemphasize the importance of their team’s coach or general manager popping up at a particular program’s pro day. You can set your watch to it. 

Coach X showed up at University Y so you KNOW he wants Player Z!

The pro day circuit is just one aspect of the pre-draft preparation process for NFL clubs, though. The information gleaned from stops on college campuses through March and early April is, as Bill Belichick might say, just part of the evaluation mosaic. 

The tape matters. The combine matters. Private workouts matter. Official visits matter. Claiming a meeting or an interview between a player and a club at any one of these spots will dictate a draft-day match is foolhardy. 

Still . . . it's interesting to track teams’ whereabouts in order to see if any trends develop.

Here we'll lay out where the two primary players in the Patriots front office, Belichick and Nick Caserio, have been spotted over the last couple weeks since pro days kicked off. Their itinerary may be nothing but a sliver of a view into where the team's interests lay, but we’ll take that sliver with the understanding that it is what it is.


Belichick made his seemingly annual trip to the University of Alabama to catch up with old friend Nick Saban and see some of the college game's top prospects. The Crimson Tide could have more than a dozen players drafted, and most of their top prospects reside on the defensive side of the ball. Receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne shoild be long gone by the time the Patriots pick at No. 31, but there are plenty of other talented defenders they could have a shot at. Linebacker Rashaan Evans (6-foot-3, 234) would be an interesting fit for a defense that could use an addition to its second level. Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (6-4, 297) is intriguing because of his versatility as a base end who could rush from the inside in sub situations. Safety Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 214) also seems like a Patriots type. Even punter JK Scott could be on their radar. 


Caserio headed to Wisconsin's pro day, where linebacker Jack Cichy posted a very strong short-shuttle (4.28 seconds) and three-cone times (7.10). He's an off-the-ball type who measured in at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds and is projected by to go on Day 3. The Badgers don't have quite as many pro prospects as Alabama, but they have seven or eight who could hear their names called on draft weekend. Corner Nick Nelson (5-11, 208) and edge defender Leon Jacobs (6-3, 230) were two of Wisconsin's best players, and would’ve been worth a look from the Patriots director of player personnel. 


Belichick kept a close eye on the defensive linemen participating in NC State's pro day Monday. Bradley Chubb is expected to be the first defensive player taken in the draft so the Patriots won't have a shot at him (which Belichick admitted to Chubb following the workout), but defensive tackle BJ Hill (6-4, 315) may have been of interest. He's thought of as a mid-rounder after a very strong showing at the Senior Bowl and a solid combine. Kentavius Street (6-2, 280) is really powerful as a defensive end and could be had toward the end of the draft. Belichick also reportedly spent some time watching backs Nyheim Hines (5-8, 197) and Jaylen Samuels (5-11, 233) run routes. 

Caserio, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the workout put together by Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside (6-2, 201). Our Mike Giardi put together a piece on Woodside, who tested well at the combine and is considered to have a good football IQ, earlier this offseason. Read it. Caserio was joined at Toledo by Patriots scout Patrick Stewart, who was also present for Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta's pro day.


Belichick went from NC State to South Carolina where he reportedly met with tight end Hayden Hurst for the second time. Hurst (6-4, 250), a walk-on who played two years of minor-league baseball, may be the first tight end taken in this year's draft. Linebacker Skai Moore (6-2, 221) was extremely productive for the Gamecocks, leading the team in tackles all four years of his career, which Belichick clearly appreciated. Moore told reporters after his pro day work out that he met with Belichick for an hour and that Belichick told him he's a great player. Belichick and Moore also met at the combine, Moore said.

So what can we make of Belichick and Caserio's stops thus far? We’re careful not to make too much of these stops visits, but here are some quick-hitting thoughts . . .

* They appear to want more information on the draft's second (or third) tier of quarterbacks. It should come as no surprise that the Patriots won't be in the running to select passers like USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen or Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield. But the group that includes Woodside, Lauletta and others -- perhaps Washington State's Luke Falk, whose pro day will be at Utah State on Mar. 28, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, and Western Kentucky's Mike White -- seems to be of interest.

* Are the Patriots looking for their next playmaker at tight end? Even with Rob Gronkowski on the roster (assuming he returns in 2018) the Patriots could use another pass-catcher at this spot. Their interest in Hurst is intriguing. If they pop up at South Dakota State's pro day on Mar. 30 -- home of Dallas Goedert -- then that might be an indication they are considering a running mate and heir apparent for Gronkowski. 

* Outside of offensive tackle, off-the-ball linebacker might be the biggest need the Patriots have not addressed via trade or free agency this offseason. It would come as little surprise if they opted for a rookie (or two) who play that position in this year's draft. Evans is among the draft's most talented at that spot, but there are some questions around the league as to whether or not he'd be the traffic cop that, for instance, Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower have been for the Patriots. Getting a closer look at Cichy and Moore would also seem to indicate that New England is taking a close look at a newer (smaller) breed at that spot. Belichick has long liked bigger linebackers, but as the speed of the game picks up perhaps he’ll be more open to going small(ish) here. The Patriots were represented at Viriginia Tech's pro day on Mar. 14 (home of top linebacker prospect Tremaine Edmunds) and it'll be interesting to see if they show up at Boise State (home of Leighton Vander Esch) on April 3. Belichick is reportedly headed to Georgia's pro day on Wednesday, where he'll have a chance to see athletic off-the-ball 'backer Roquan Smith and athletic edge player Lorenzo Carter. Either would immediately provide the Patriots front-seven with a shot of athleticism. 

* That Belichick has seen a boatload of talented defensive linemen at Alabama and NC State isn't a shocker. While they may not have a glaring need up front for 2018 — especially after trading for Danny Shelton and signing Adrian Clayborn — both Shelton and Malcom Brown could be elsewhere in 2019 if the Patriots don't pick up their fifth-year options. Trey Flowers is also headed into a contract year. 


Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

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Quick Slants the Podcast: Ranking the Patriots additions, are the Patriots better defensively, but worse offensively?

Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry go over the moves the Patriots have made this offseason and rank their favorite moves and what to expect from those players.

(1:00) Ranking the Patriots acquisitions so far.

(5:30) Will Danny Shelton or Jason McCourty have a bigger impact n the Patriots defense?

(13:00) What can Patriots fans realistically expect from Cordarrelle Patterson?

(16:00) Are the Patriots a better team now than they were at the end of the Super Bowl?

(17:00) What is the next position in need for the Patriots?

(23:00) How concerning is the tension level between Belichick/Brady/Gronkowski, when should Patriots fans start to panic?