What we learned at NFL meetings: Don't hold your breath on Malcolm Butler

What we learned at NFL meetings: Don't hold your breath on Malcolm Butler

With the NFL's annual meetings all wrapped up, here are some of the things we learned while hanging around the Arizona Biltmore . . . 

* If you're holding your breath waiting for something to pop on the Malcolm Butler front, don't. Sean Payton isn't. While the Saints head coach acknowledged on Wednesday that his team's interest in Butler is "ongoing," he also readily admitted that there are dominos that need to fall before they can begin to seriously entertain a deal that would land the 27-year-old corner in New Orleans. "I think it might take a bit of time," Payton said. Why? Because the Saints don't plan on giving Butler an offer sheet, which would require them giving up their No. 11 overall pick. That means if Butler is going to end up in the bayou, he will have to sign his first-round tender with the Patriots and then be traded. 

Butler could wait until April 21 comes and goes before scribbling on the first-round tender he's been given by the Patriots. That's the deadline for restricted free agents to receive and sign offer sheets. Though it seems unlikely that Butler will be presented any offer sheets, there's no real disadvantage to him biding his time these next three weeks to see if something changes and another club floats him a lifeline. Once the offer-sheet deadline has expired then it would make sense for him to sign his tender as soon as possible if he wants out of New England. That would give the Patriots about a week to work out some kind of trade in which they'd receive 2017 draft-pick compensation. If Butler would rather increase his chances of sticking with the Patriots, playing out the season in a good secondary, then taking a crack at unrestricted free agency, he could wait until after the draft to sign his $3.91 million tender. As long as he signs before June 15, at which point the Patriots can slash his salary, his wallet won't be impacted.

* The No. 32 overall pick could be in play to come back to the Patriots in a trade. I asked Payton if the last pick of the first round -- the pick the Saints received from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks deal -- might be on the table if the right trade came up. He wasn't turned off by the idea. New Orleans has five picks in the top 103, giving them all kinds of flexibility if they want to move up or down the draft board . . . or trade for a ready-made Pro Bowl corner. "It would be hard to say, 'Well, we're just going to sit at 32.' You do have some flexibility," Payton said.

* The Saints defense might not be all that far off from being just . . . good . . . enough. They ranked 31st in the league last year with 28.4 points allowed per game, but there are some who believe they have a chance to give Payton's offense the support it needs with the right additions. They already have one of the most underrated pass-rushers in football in Cameron Jordan, and corner Delvin Breaux was arguably one of the best at his position in 2015 before he suffered injuries that set him back last season. Should they dip into what looks like a loaded draft class of defensive ends at No. 11 overall and swing a deal for a big-name corner? They could be stout enough defensively to help 38-year-old quarterback Drew Brees make a legitimate playoff push. 

* Familiarity breeds transactions. If the Saints and Patriots be able to eventually execute a trade for Butler, it would be the ninth deal done between the teams with Payton and Bill Belichick leading their respective clubs. Belichick has stated in the past that sometimes it can be hard to find willing trade partners, but that hasn't been the case when New Orleans has been on the other end of the phone. "There’s just that comfort level [with Belichick] of discussing a topic and maybe talking about it again the next day and giving some thought to it," Payton said. "Easy isn't the right word, but there is a level of comfort zone and a level of trust when you’re beginning to talk for a player or draft picks that I think makes the process go a little easier." Since before the 2014 season, the Patriots have completed multiple trades with the Saints, Texans, Bears, Browns and Lions. They've also agreed to deals with the Panthers, Eagles, Broncos, Redskins, Cardinals, Titans and Cowboys. 

* The Cooks deal was the source of some buzz -- and head-shaking -- at the Biltmore. Plenty of coaches, particularly those tasked with playing the Patriots in 2017, weren't thrilled to hear about the trade that landed Tom Brady another dynamic weapon in the passing game. Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn't hesitate when he said he thought the New England roster has improved since winning a Super Bowl. Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said he's cringed at the moves the Patriots have made, especially the Cooks exchange. And first-year Bills coach Sean McDermott said the Patriots' wheeling and dealing is one of the reasons he's often up until 3 a.m. trying to figure out a way to win in the division. 

* Does Darrelle Revis have enough to be a serviceable NFL corner in 2017? The man who last coached him isn't so sure.

* Patriots ownership would be OK with paying two quarterbacks starting salaries if that's what Belichick thought was best. Nothing I heard in Phoenix did anything to make me believe that the Patriots were planting a "for sale" sign in the front yard as it relates to backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The logical follow-up: How long will Garoppolo stick in New England? And what will that cost? Since Garoppolo would like the opportunity to start, the Patriots may have to designate him as their franchise player in 2018 if they want him to continue to serve as Brady's backup.  That could cost the team somewhere in the range of $25 million guaranteed. I asked Patriots CEO and chairman Robert Kraft what he thought of potentially paying two starting-quarterback salaries, and he deferred to his coach. "I've assigned him the responsibility of football decisions at all positions," Kraft said. "He's done pretty good at it. We'll continue to do that. That's really a decision for him." When asked about Garoppolo in particular, and if there were any circumstances under which the Patriots might trade him, Kraft replied, "I think I don't have the right demeanor of our coach. I charged him to all football matters. We're priveleged to have the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, and it looks like he's playing pretty solid. He's off the charts in my view. We're lucky to have him. That's the most important position on the team. Needless to say, I don't think anyone would say you've got too much depth at that position. I've charged him to make those decisions, Bill, and I'll leave that with him."

* If the Browns are going to try to trade for Garoppolo, they won't be dangling the No. 1 overall pick. No. 12, though? That seems like a possibility.

* Kraft may have shed some light on why the Patriots would be OK approaching this year's draft without a first or second-round pick. As he explained it, sometimes there is better value in grabbing a relatively young known commodity -- even if it's for fewer years or more dollars -- than there is in making a draft pick. What was particularly interesting about Kraft's comments was his acknowledgment that the Patriots have had some misses near the top of the draft in recent years. "The draft gets you young people that you can basically control your costs for four years -- or five years if it's a first-round draft pick," Kraft said. "But we've gotten some younger players who are known entities. We've made some draft picks high up, and they haven't performed well. Having known value . . . I think Brandin is 23. [Stephon] Gilmore is 26 . . . so it's a risk-reward analysis there." The Patriots are scheduled to make their first pick in this year's draft in the third round at No. 72 overall.  

* For Kraft, the Raiders move was all about the stadium. The Patriots were among the 30 clubs who approved moving the Raiders franchise from Oakland to Las Vegas. Not long after votes were cast, Kraft recalled a point in time when he very nearly moved his team from Foxboro to Hartford. "None of us like to see anyone move," Kraft said. " . . . It's horrible for the fanbase. I went through it myself and came close to moving in the New England region but didn't decide to do it. Walked away from a great financial deal because that was right for me. In the end we're in a very competitive league, and you can't compete at the highest level if you don't have a first-rate stadium. I think that's what really this is all about."

* There were those who lamented that Belichick wasn't more involved in the rules-change process at this year's meetings. For two years now, the Patriots have decided not to propose any rules changes to be considered by the Competition Committee. The reason? Could be that because two of their proposals back in 2015 -- dealing with expanded use of replay and installing fixed cameras on the boundaries -- were stonewalled the way they were. At the time, when it was suggested that money might be an issue as it pertained to his cameras proposal, Belichick sarcastically offered up the idea that the league could hold a bake sale. After Belichick bolted from the Biltmore to hit the scouting trail on Monday, I had multiple people express to me what a shame it was that one of the game's best minds doesn't have more of a say in some of the discussions that would occur there throughout the week. Ironic, isn't it?

* Belichick's fixed-camera idea did have an on-the-record supporter in Payton. The proposal was shot down two years ago and remains dead, but Payton still feels strongly about it. "We have the technology. We all remember John McEnroe. There'd be the ball . . . in or out? We didn't know. Then there'd be this, 'Here it comes!' And it was fairly entertaining, honestly. We enjoyed that. I don't know how his schtick would work today, but the technology we have in tennis is pretty amazing. Hey, there it is, (in or out). I'm not suggesting that same technology for football, but surely we can know when a player is in or out of bounds. We're never going to know whether he made a catch or not, but I'm talking about whether he's in or out of bounds." Payton's passion for the idea may have grown stronger in the last few months, understandably. The Saints lost a game last season when Broncos defensive back Will Parks recovered a blocked extra-point attempt and returned it a game-winning score after it appeared as though he may have stepped out of bounds. 

* The Patriots voted in favor of banning players from leaping the line of scrimmage during field-goals or extra-points. The rule change -- designed to keep players from being flipped by guards or centers who've become more and more aware of the possibility someone might try to jump over them -- passed unanimously. Even if there were teams that hoped those types of plays would remain legal, once it was clear the ban would pass, any vote against the ban probably would have done little more than draw negative attention for being viewed as anti-player safety.

* Dean Blandino has been handed a great deal of responsibility. The league's vice president of officiating is the one who keeps the lines of communication open with coaches and players to ensure that all parties involved are up the rules. For instance, Belichick has said many times that he and Blandino speak whenever there is any kind of confusion. He's also often tasked with explaining to fans why certain calls are made the way they are. Now, though, with the passage of a rule change that will centralize the league's replay system, Blandino will be making the calls. When plays are reviewed around the league, he'll have final say from a room at 345 Park Avenue called Art McNally GameDay Central. This raises a couple of issues. One, teams with less-than-stellar relationships with the league may be wondering who's pulling the strings when a ruling doesn't go their way. Another? What happens when there are multiple reviews that need to be looked at across the league simultaneously? Blandino explained that the NFL will have a person monitoring each game as it plays out, and then when a review is initiated, that person will call over either Blandino, director of officiating Al Riveron or another officiating supervisor to consult with officials on the field. "We had a real good year last year with three people in the room, feeling out that early window on Sunday," Blandino said on Tuesday night. "And so if there are up to three challenges going on at once, we can manage that. It would be a very rare instance where they would all be initiated at the same moment and then have a fourth that you really couldn't get to. The way it flows, you can get to the replay station, and we feel comfortable with that early window of games." Here's a look, courtesy of the NFL, at what the room looks like and how things will operate. The only difference this upcoming season will be that Blandino is doing more than conferring with officials on the field. He'll be making the decisions for them. 

* Dan Quinn isn't too keen on re-living Super Bowl LI. Wonder why? When asked if he believed he should have overruled former Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the fourth quarter, when run plays would have helped them bleed the clock, Quinn deflected. "I think when you go down that road, the hindsight stuff, that's so easy to say right now," he said. "Of course I want the outcome to be different. Most plays, when we have a play designed to our best player, they usually end up pretty good . . . We had over 150 plays in the game, and you could go back through all of them. And we do. But past that, man, I can't keep looking back. I've learned my lessons. You gain from those scars. Then you say, how do you get better?"

* The Bills are working on their public image. Per ESPN's Mike Rodak, the team has hired talent consultant Gerry Matalon to advise coach Sean McDermott. Matalon watched intently during McDermott's meeting with reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast, and from this vantage point the first-year coach handled the back-and-forth smoothly. When asked what his nickname should be since his former boss Ron Rivera was known as "Riverboat Ron," McDermott smiled. "I'll let you guys figure that out," he said. Positively Belichickian. The Bills are looking to ameliorate their handling of public appearances after both interim coach Anthony Lynn and general manager Doug Whaley held baffling pressers late last season. Earlier this offseason, the team hired Derek Boyko to be its new public relations chief.

* Up next? The Patriots will continue to hit the scouting trail leading up to the draft, determining where they stand on the prospects available to them. We'll have an opportunity to figure out how the team thinks of this year's crop when director of player personnel Nick Caserio holds his annual pre-draft press conference. That's expected to fall in the next three weeks or so before the team travels to the White House on April 19.

EX-PATS PODCAST: Why does it seem Patriots secondary is playing better without Gilmore?


EX-PATS PODCAST: Why does it seem Patriots secondary is playing better without Gilmore?

On this episode of The Ex-Pats Podcast...

0:10 - Mike Giardi and Dan Koppen give their takeaways from the Patriots win over the Falcons including the defense coming up strong against Atlanta but New England still taking too many penalties.

2:00 - Why it felt like this game meant more to the Patriots, their sense of excitement after the win, and building chemistry off a good victory.

6:20 - Falcons losing their identity without Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and their bad play calling and decisions on 4th downs.

10:00 -  A discussion about Matt Ryan not making the throws he needed against the Patriots and if he has falling off the MVP caliber-type player he was last season.

14:00 - How and why the Patriots secondary seems to be playing better without Stephon Gilmore and why Malcolm Butler has been able to turn up his play as of late.

Mother Nature gets between Belichick and his Patriots-Falcons film study


Mother Nature gets between Belichick and his Patriots-Falcons film study

If your team makes a goal-line stop in the fourth quarter, but you can't see it on the All-22 tape, did it even happen? 

Bill Belichick said the fog that hovered above the Gillette Stadium turf on Sunday night didn't impact the play on the field, but it did make its imprint on the game in other ways. First of all, spotters and coaches up at the press level had some difficulty relaying information to coaches on the sidelines. Video on the hand-held tablets for sideline use -- as well as the old-school still-frame pictures Belichick prefers -- was also obstructed. 

Then on Monday, as coaches tried to digest the film, the fog butted in on the process again. 

"It affected us a lot this morning because it’s hard to see the game," Belichick said during a conference call. "The fourth quarter is – I don’t know – pretty close to a white-out on the sideline film. The sideline cameras are at the top of the stadium, so that’s a tough shot.

"The end zone cameras are a little bit lower and they get a little tighter shot, so the picture is a little bit clearer. But, on that shot, a lot of times you’re not able to see all the guys on the perimeter. It’s kind of an in-line shot.

"Yeah, the first half, start of the third quarter, it’s all right. As they get into the middle of the third quarter and on, for those of us with aging eyes, it’s a little strained to see it, and then there’s a point where you can’t really see it at all, especially from the sideline. So, yeah, it affected us."

Belichick re-iterated that the fog didn't do much to the product on the field (other than maybe making life difficult for kick and punt-returners), refuting Julio Jones' claim from late Sunday night. When it came to digesting the film, though, that was another story.

"It was more, I’d say, just tougher for, whether it be our video camera or the fans that were sitting in the upper deck. It’s just there was too much interference there," Belichick said. "It was probably hard to see the game. I know when we tried to look at the pictures in between series – you know, I don’t look at the tablets, so I won’t get into that – but the pictures, it was kind of the same thing. It was hard to really be able to make out exactly what you were seeing."