Patriots

Patriots

From storybook beginning to an ending bordering on the absurd, Malcolm Butler had quite a ride in New England.

It took him from Super Bowl hero to the stunning sight of him in a Patriots uniform but only playing a single snap a little over a month ago in another Super Bowl, this one a loss to the Eagles.

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But now Butler will blaze a new trail, signing a staggering deal with the Tennessee Titans that -- if the early numbers are accurate -- would make him the third highest-paid cornerback in NFL history in terms of guaranteed money.

Butler gets at least $30 million guaranteed and $61 million over five years as he joins former teammate Logan Ryan in Nashville, thus decisively ending any discussion on whether or not that still-to-be explained Super Bowl benching (unless you're all in on it being a football decision) would have a negative impact on his earning power.

What's ironic about the deal is that the Pats had internally debated whether or not Butler could have handled it if they'd given a long-term extension to Ryan, his former and now once again teammate, at about the same time a year ago. Apparently the Titans aren't worried. Their commitment trails only the $36 million guaranteed given to Josh Norman by the Redskins and the $31 million the Pats coughed up to Stephon Gilmore.

Pats players had no doubt that Butler deserved it, and also deserved better fate that fateful Sunday in Minneapolis. They openly supported Butler on Instagram and several players quietly questioned the decision in the immediate aftermath.

 

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Butler had been stung by the Pats' unwillingness to extend him for the money he thought he was worth, and his final season in Foxboro was a roller coaster filled with more lows than highs. He never came close to finding his game and ended up being a weak link in a secondary that grew stronger as the year went along. The organization will tell you that undrafted Jon Jones was a better player in 2017-18 than Butler, although Butler's snap count remained one of the highest in the league during the course of the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs (over 97 percent), which made the Super Bowl even more unexplainable.

Butler was put on notice in Week 2 when he saw his snaps reduced in New Orleans, a place where he had visited during the offseason as a restricted free agent. At the time both Bill Belichick and then-defensive coordinator Matt Patricia were evasive and indirect.

"Well, look, we're into a new season, so I don't think anybody's performance this season is really where it needs to be or where it will be," said Belichick when I asked him directly about Butler's performance the day after that game.

"It's all about this year," said Patricia when I asked him the same question. "I think what things have gone down in the past doesn't really matter to us. We're trying to get better for this year. The guys that are out there and in positions right now . . . help us win that particular week."

Butler tried to keep his head and took several days before he commented on the situation. He was honest and open and you could tell the whole thing hurt him, dating back to the inability to get the extension from the Pats, through the Gilmore signing and then the reduced role.

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"There've been times when I've been through a lot of stuff, man," he said. "I made it through that and I made it to the National Football League. If I can handle that and make it to the NFL then I can put my mind together to make it past this situation. Just gotta perform better. It's still early, but need a sense of urgency and we'll see that."

That urgency showed itself at times but his consistency never was what it had been. His compete level never waned but the performance did, and once the Super Bowl was in the rearview, there was no doubt the next time we'd see Butler was in a different uniform.

He'll get that chance to show the Pats they screwed up. The two teams are scheduled to meet in Tennessee in 2018.

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