FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Since the New England Patriots shocked some around the NFL by paying a top-of-the-market five-year, $65 million contract for free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and fellow corner Malcolm Butler was subsequently part of trade speculation, an obvious question surfaced:
What do the Patriots see in Gilmore, whose presence could affect Butler’s standing on the team in the short and long term, that makes them more willing to make that big-time investment?
To begin to understand the team’s thinking, we turn to Dan Hatman, who spent six years scouting for NFL teams and is the director of scouting development for The Scouting Academy.
Gilmore, at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, is a different type of corner than the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Butler.
“Bill [Belichick] has proven over the last couple of years that if you can get a couple of guys who can play man, giving the interior of the defense more flexibility, they are happier,” Hatman said. “You cannot say it’s a surprise they are continuing to go after premium man corners, and Gilmore fits that bill. Those are harder to find in the league, so when Gilmore makes it to the market, they pounce."
This isn’t to say Butler doesn’t often play man coverage at a high level (e.g. vs. Steelers receiver Antonio Brown), but from a scouting perspective Gilmore has a “broader range of things he can do”, according to Hatman.
Specifically, Gilmore’s size and length can create more flexibility for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia when matching up against some of the game’s bigger receivers, as he’s harder to throw over. He’s a physical player at the line of scrimmage.
Butler, too, has his strengths.
“He is a very competent corner in this league and will be compensated well when that time comes,” Hatman said. “But in terms of ‘can you take away part of the field on a consistent basis?’ or ‘can you always trust that matchup against all personnel and situations and sign off on it knowing it’s taken care of’?, that hasn’t proven to be the case. Those players are harder to find in the league.”
The 26-year-old Gilmore, based on the Patriots’ significant financial investment on the unrestricted free-agent market, is closer to that in the view of Belichick and the coaching staff.
But the 27-year-old Butler (restricted free agent) has something that can’t necessarily be measured from the scouting perspective -- his heart. His underdog story, high competitive level and fearless tackling, coupled with his Super Bowl XLIX-saving interception, make him one of the club's all-time revered players.
That counts for something too, although Hatman believes it only goes so far.
“That is appreciated up to a point, but then it’s about the team, and they feel they’re better with a guy like Gilmore,” Hatman said. “If Malcolm all of a sudden feels marginalized, that he has his legs taken out from underneath him, they’ll replace him like everybody else and move on. But if he says ‘hey, they brought in another guy, he’ll help us lock down his guy, I’ll lock down mine, the pass rush will get there, and we’ll get back to the Super Bowl,’ then they’ll all be better for it and go from there. I don’t think the move to Gilmore is necessarily a death sentence to Butler.”