FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With cornerback Malcolm Butler signing his $3.91 million restricted free agent tender on Tuesday, a resolution on his future with the New England Patriots should be reached by the end of the month.
This was a critical step toward that resolution, and here is why: Butler couldn't be traded until he signed his tender, and any interested teams would probably have significantly less motivation to deal for him after the NFL draft April 27-29.
So the timing is big here, with the New Orleans Saints the most likely, and perhaps only, suitor.
Why would the Patriots be willing to deal Butler?
The thinking would be similar to what the club did in 2016 when it shipped defensive end Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for a late second-round pick. The Patriots knew they were unlikely to sign Jones to a big-money extension after the season when he became an unrestricted free agent, so they decided that getting something valuable for him one year earlier was a worthwhile investment. They ultimately turned the pick they received for Jones into two players -- starting guard Joe Thuney and promising receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- en route to a Super Bowl championship.
Butler might even bring the Patriots a greater return in a year in which the club's earliest selection in the draft is currently early in the third round, No. 72 overall. If the Saints were willing to return the first-round pick they received from the Patriots (No. 32 overall) in the Brandin Cooks trade, that might be enticing for Bill Belichick. Or a combination of high second- and third-round picks might even be viewed as more valuable to Belichick for a player who is unlikely to return to the team in 2018 after New England invested five years and $65 million in free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
The other side of the argument is that nothing the Patriots receive in a trade would be better than pairing Butler with Gilmore for the 2017 season, which assumes Butler is all-in, as he's been throughout his first three seasons in the NFL. It might just be the NFL's best 1-2 cornerback combination.