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Malcolm Butler returns to Super Bowl with new role as No. 1 cornerback

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How much of a challenge will Butler be for Jones? (1:18)

Josina Anderson is confident that Patriots CB Malcolm Butler will play Falcons WR Julio Jones very strong in Super Bowl LI, despite their height difference. (1:18)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There has been an overflowing media contingent around the New England Patriots the past two days, and it’s no surprise which player has drawn arguably the most attention of all.

Cornerback Malcolm Butler and Super Bowls are a compelling storyline.

“That’s one of the most unbelievable stories and journeys of the last 30 years in pro football,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain now in his ninth season with the club. “To go from a guy who was a tryout guy, not even a free agent, to that same year one of the best plays in Super Bowl history, I think the growth he’s shown over the last couple of seasons has been tremendous.”

Butler’s growth is going to generate even more attention in the days leading up to Super LI between the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Much has changed for him since he made a dramatic goal-line interception of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to save Super Bowl XLIX for the Patriots.

Butler is a clear-cut No. 1 corner now. Back then, he was No. 5 on the depth chart, coming off a divisional-round win over the Baltimore Ravens in which he didn’t play a single defensive snap and an AFC Championship Game in which he was on the field for just 15.

In the Super Bowl, he didn’t get the call until the second half. He played 18 overall snaps and saved his most important for last.

On Thursday, I asked Bill Belichick what he saw that led to Butler's jump from No. 5 to No. 1 after his dramatic Super Bowl interception.

“Well, I mean, we put him on Antonio Brown in the opener in 2015,” he said. “Obviously, there has been growth over a period of time. I don’t think you go from one level of a player to another in a few practices or a game or a half or whatever. But we thought that he had showed enough going into the 2015 season that he would be our guy that we would match up against certain receivers.”

Butler’s potential matchup against Falcons receiver Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI was foreshadowed by Butler when he was still enrolled at West Alabama in 2012. After watching Jones in a prime-time game against the Detroit Lions in late December, Butler tweeted the following:

This week, he was asked about the tweet, and he responded, “Dreams do come true. That’s not any trash talk or being cocky or anything. I had a vision.”

Few could have seen Butler’s sudden rise since Super Bowl XLIX, as he played 1,082 defensive snaps in 2015 (98.8 percent), followed by 1,008 this year (96.7 percent). That’s a lot of football, and what impresses teammates such as safety Devin McCourty is that though Butler’s role has changed since his Super Bowl-saving pick, the man himself hasn’t.

“He’s been a guy who back then was a lot lower on the depth chart, but every time he steps on the field, he’s very competitive,” he said. “He has one level, one speed. He’s a competitor, and it has a lot to do with how he’s come into the league. Being at West Alabama, he’s always had to fight and grind, and that’s never changed for him.”

As Belichick said, Butler is a “long way from West Alabama.” Meanwhile, teammates have taken pride in watching what has unfolded for him.

“What you’ve seen is really just a guy who has grown in confidence, who has grown in his understanding of the game, a guy who’s not afraid to compete, a guy who is not afraid of the moment,” Slater said. “He just continues to get better and better. What a joy it is to see that story from the beginning to where it is now.”