Patriots

Butler looks back on journey since Super Bowl XLIX: 'Went by pretty fast'

Butler looks back on journey since Super Bowl XLIX: 'Went by pretty fast'

FOXBORO -- Malcolm Butler knows how quickly things can change in the NFL. He's lived through those changes. 

He went from being an undrafted, too-slow-for-the-league, Division 2 reject to picking off Tom Brady in Patriots practices. Then he went from being a seldom-used corner to authoring perhaps the most iconic play in the history of the sport. Just last offseason, he went from being the unquestioned No. 1 cover man on the Patriots to watching the team pay Stephon Gilmore at the top of the market. In Week 2, he was benched. 

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Since that September win over the Saints, Butler has played in all but seven defensive snaps for the Patriots. It hasn't been his most consistent season in terms of performance, but he's about to have a chance to play a key role in the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four years.

"Went by pretty fast, man," he said, recalling all that's gone down since his signature moment against the Seahawks. "Went by real fast. Felt like yesterday, but life goes that fast."

Don't blink because another change could be coming soon. The burning meteor that rocketed toward Phoenix on Feb. 1, 2015 -- the one that burned quickly and as brightly as any other -- could be on the move. 

Once the Super Bowl comes and goes, win or lose, Butler's name may be near the top of whatever list of alterations are coming to the Patriots in the offseason. Butler is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and with Gilmore earning what he does, it seems highly unlikely he would get a similar deal in New England. 

It's already assumed that both Patriots coordinators will be elsewhere for the start of the 2018 season, and there could be other assistants who head out the door with them. Players will be gone as well. Some of the moves may be relatively surprising. Others less so. 

The End of the Butler Era in New England would qualify as the latter. 

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Below is a quick list of Patriots working on the final years of their contracts, according to Spotrac, and potentially could be looking at their last few days with the Patriots . . . 

Malcolm Butler, CB, 27: It will be interesting to see how Butler's offseason plays out. Will there be a team out there willing to pay him what Gilmore got ($31 million guaranteed at signing and $40 million guaranteed total), or in that range? He'll be 28 on Mar. 2.   

Nate Solder, LT, 29: Asked recently if he had made any decisions about future plans, Solder said no. Would he be willing to go elsewhere to play? Would he opt to stop outright? We'll find out eventually. 

Matthew Slater, ST, 32: The special teams ace just made his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl, and after having battled hamstring issues for much of the season, he looks as effective as ever. He's tied with Steve Tasker for most Pro Bowl selections for a special teamer. Whether he ever makes another Pro Bowl or not, and he very well could, Slater's already made a name for himself as one top special teams players in the history of the game. 

Danny Amendola, WR, 32: Nicknamed "Playoff Amendola" and "All-Weather 'Dola" by teammates, Amendola is in the middle of another incredible playoff run. He has avoided the injuries that often plagued him in his career, and he's showing why he still has tremendous value to a team at this stage in his career. The question is, might a team be out there that is watching his performances and willing to pay him this offseason more than what the Patriots might? 

Dion Lewis, RB, 27: Coming off of the best (and healthiest) season of his career, Lewis has an opportunity to cash in as a free agent. He's proven that despite coming back from a torn ACL in 2015 and a fractured patella at the start of last season, he's still lightning quick and one of the most versatile backs in football. 

Rex Burkhead, RB, 27: The former Bengals back and special-teamer took a chance on himself with a one-year deal with the Patriots last offseason. If healthy, he's proven he provides the Patriots with a talented pass-catching presence, a reliable goal-line back, and a savvy special-teamer. That's been a big "if" this season, though. He missed six regular-season games and one playoff game this year due to injury. 

LaAdrian Waddle, OT, 26: One of the team's backup tackles, Waddle was injured in the Divisional Round against the Titans and was inactive last weekend. He's played primarily right tackle with the Patriots and performed well during a difficult stretch this season that had him lined up across from Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, then Von Miller, then Khalil Mack and Cam Wake. 

Cameron Fleming, OT, 25: A fourth-round pick out of Stanford in 2014, Fleming appeared to be on the bubble at training camp last summer. The Patriots kept him, and they're glad they did. As the team's third right tackle, he has more than held his own late in the season. He played all 64 snaps against the Jags and allowed one sack.

Nate Ebner, ST, 28: Ebner tore his ACL earlier this season, but there is optimism he'll be healthy enough to start the 2018 season. Will that be in New England? A highly-respected special-teamer in the Patriots locker room, Ebner handles some crucial jobs for the Patriots in the kicking game, including the personal protecter role.

Johnson Bademosi, CB, 27: A valuable presence at corner while Gilmore dealt with a concussion, the veteran special-teamer has stepped in to help the Patriots cope with the loss of Jonathan Jones to injury. 

James Harrison, LB, 39: He's already made a handful of key postseason plays, and if he has another couple left in the bag, the Patriots will gladly take them. 

Rick Jean Francois, DL, 31: More than just an owner of a couple dozen Dunkin Donuts franchises, Francois has been a force in the middle for the Patriots defense of late. Both against the run and the pass, Francois has been effective. 

Geneo Grissom, DL, 25: A core special-teamer, Grissom gives those units some size and experience at that those spots. 

Marquis Flowers, LB, 25: For teams looking to land versatile pieces with the ability to cover and sack the quarterback, Flowers could be their guy. 

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The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

gronk.jpg
File Photo

The Gronk dilemma is a sticky one for Patriots

The quote’s been credited to a whole lot of coaches. It doesn’t matter who actually said it. What matters is how much truth there is in the saying, “Once an NFL player starts considering retirement, he’s already gone.”

There are myriad variations but they all arrive at the same spot. Once a player talks about hanging ‘em up, he’s given mental traction to feelings of football ambivalence. Employer beware.

Immediately after the Super Bowl, Gronk was asked about possible retirement.

His did nothing to spike the idea.

“I don’t know how you heard that but I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” he said. I’m going to sit down the next couple weeks and see where I’m at.”

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Rob Gronkowski’s gone past idle musing about retirement. The “that” is the smoking gun there, obviously referring to something that had been ongoing.

In the two weeks since the Super Bowl, we’ve learned Gronk’s  gotten advice from Sly Stallone and The Rock about how much dough he can make in action movies  and that folks in the WWE would offer Gronk a deal similar to Ronda Rousey’s.

Is this an orchestrated attempt to create some urgency with the Patriots so they give Gronk a bump that makes it more worth his while (he’s on the books for salaries of $8M and $9M the next two seasons)?

Is this an effort to dip a toe in the entertainment pool while his NFL marketability remains near its apex? A Brady-esque effort to set up a post-football career while still continuing in the main vocation?

Or is it simply what it is – a 28-year-old whose body’s been through the wringer since college using common sense to realize that his position and style of play are going to exact a physical cost on him for the rest of his life?

Yes. Yes. And yes. It’s all of the above.

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And that’s why the Patriots have to take this very seriously.

Gronk and his family have had an eye on his football mortality since he was 19. Because of an insurance policy taken out by his father, Gordie, while Gronk was at Arizona, Gronk could have retired from football and received $4 million tax-free. He considered it as his recuperation from back surgery left him concerned he wouldn’t be able to walk correctly again.

He declared for the draft in 2010 to maximize his earning potential. And he bought in. Then 2012 happened. 

He broke his arm during the regular season and had a plate inserted in his forearm. When he rebroke the arm just above the plate in his first game back, it was described as a fluke. Worst-case scenario. But that was small consolation. And when an infection developed in the arm in early 2013, another surgery was necessary. And the convalescence from that ensued. Then came a back surgery in June of 2013. Then came a longer-than-expected recovery that stretched well into the 2013 regular season and a blown ACL when he did return.

The 2014 season was injury-free, but when Gronk was hit in the knee against Denver in 2015, you could sense his panic as he writhed on the field that something was terribly wrong. There wasn’t. But the team and the Gronkowski Camp released a joint statement about his timetable for return then Gronk underscored his intention of not returning until he was “100 percent.”

The 2016 season ended prematurely with another back injury suffered against the Jets and another surgery. That injury followed soon after a thunderous hit was laid on him by Seattle’s Earl Thomas. And his 2017 playoff run was marred by a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.

So it’s best to remember all that context when eye-rolling about how the Patriots have had to bend over backwards to accommodate Gronk. His care and feeding are a lot different because A) he came to the NFL with injuries that gave him perspective; B) he got burned when he came back quickly from the broken arm; C) the 2013 whisper campaign painting him as a malingerer left a dent and D) his family is uniquely attuned to NFL reality that it’s a business and you best protect your only asset – your body.

The branding and the marketing has felt hamhanded at times but that’s the nature of the business these days and - in hindsight – it’s been a boon for a player who signed a “safe” six-year, $54M contract in 2011 that’s now severely outdated.

So what are the Patriots to do with a 28-year-old who’s suffered multiple knee, head and back injuries and is openly talking about wrapping it up?

They can’t just sit with their hands folded in their laps and wait until Gronk gets around to deciding. They need to know is he in or is he out? Or if he’s completely ambivalent, at which point, would trading him be a horrific idea?

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The irony is, Gronk told me in December that he’s never felt better. “I’m having fun playing football again,” he told me. His body held him hostage until he changed the way he trained and now the results from increased flexibility are obvious in his statistics, his quickness and the types of catches he was able to make last year.

He’s a Hall of Famer if he never plays another down. It’s not hard to make a persuasive argument that he’s the best tight end to ever play.

But how do the Patriots proceed with a legend that – for all the right reasons – isn’t sure he wants to keep playing? It’s a lot to wrestle with.

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Make a splash on the edge or stick with the kids?

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at a position where the Patriots have plenty of bodies but an unknown number of difference-makers: Edge defender. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No position group saw greater change through training camp than Bill Belichick's group of edge players. Rob Ninkovich retired. Kony Ealy was cut. Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers had season-ending injuries. When Harvey Langi was injured in a car accident and Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, the team was dangerously thin on the outside. The Patriots tried to fill in over the course of the season with a series of Band-Aids. Cassius Marsh got the first crack but was eventually sent packing. The Patriots plucked Eric Lee from the Bills practice squad. They signed James Harrison late. By season's end, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise saw more pass-rush work than anyone else. Wise flashed his potential but also experienced some rookie growing pains. Flowers was really, really good in 993 snaps -- more than any Patriots defensive lineman since Ninkovich played 1,040 in 2014 - but he didn't have much in the way of consistent help on the other side. 

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Hightower, Flowers, Rivers, Wise, Lee, Shea McClellin, Trevor Reilly, Harvey Langi, Geneo Grissom, Keionta Davis

WHO ISN'T?
Harrison

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?


The Patriots have numbers here. But there are questions that need answering. How healthy will Hightower and McClellin be in 2018? And will they be better suited to play off the line or on the edge? What will Rivers look like after tearing his ACL? How will Wise and Langi develop? If everyone's back and they're all ready to play significant roles, is the need really all that dire? In reality, the Patriots could probably use another addition here, maybe a free agent who's a known commodity. The Patriots have plenty of lottery tickets that could hit in 2018, but adding a dependable option to play opposite Flowers would make sense.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


The two top edge defenders in free agency will be Demarcus Lawrence (25 years old) of the Cowboys and Ezekiel Ansah (28) of the Lions. The Patriots would have to be willing to commit serious money to either one. More cost-effective options would be Alex Okafor (who tore his Achilles late last season), Trent Murphy (who might be a good fit in New England's multiple fronts), Adrian Clayborn (capable against both the run and the pass), Connor Barwin (missed just two games in the last seven seasons), Jeremiah Attaochu (former second-rounder who may still have some untapped potential) and 38-year-old Julius Peppers (a potential stop-gap while young Patriots pass-rushers grow into pros). Options there. But because this isn't seen as a particularly strong draft class when it comes to edge players, there will be competition for each.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?


NC State's Bradley Chubb is the early favorite to be the first edge defender off the board this spring, but he's not viewed by everyone to be a game-changing pass-rush talent. Pro Football Focus has compared him to Bills 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. Behind him? Question marks abound. Marcus Davenport from Texas-San Antonio was dominant last season...but against seriously inferior competition. LSU's Arden Key may be the most talented pass-rusher available, but he left the team last spring, leading to questions about his commitment to the sport. Boston College's Harold Landry looked like a top-15 pick before last season, but he was slowed by injury in 2017, his production fell, and now so has his draft stock. Maybe the Patriots can find a physically-gifted edge-setter or pass-rusher in the middle rounds -  as they did with Flowers in 2015 - but there doesn't seem to be a ton of certainty at the top of the class here.

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


Because the Patriots are well-stocked with young players at this spot - Flowers, Rivers, Wise and Langi will all be 25 or younger when the 2018 season begins - snagging a reliable veteran for the rotation might be the best course of action. Would Barwin be willing to jump coasts after a year with the Rams in order to join the Patriots while Belichick's 20-somethings grow as professionals? What about Peppers? Could the Patriots coax him to leave Carolina for a one-year deal? He hasn't missed a game in 10 years, and he's missed just six total in his career. Maybe Belichick and Nick Caserio will be willing to go big here and shell out long-term dough to make sure they have both edges locked down for the foreseeable future. But with other needs to fill, and with myriad options already on the roster, it wouldn't be surprising if the team stood pat. It really all depends on how they view their youngsters. If they believe, there's little use in spending on, say, Lawrence or Ansah. If they don't, then there could be a splash coming. 

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