Malcolm Butler trade would be perfect companion to Brandin Cooks deal

METAIRIE, La. -- In the end, the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots might wind up swapping receiver Brandin Cooks for cornerback Malcolm Butler after all.

And though it would cost the Saints more money in the short term, it’s hard not to like the idea.

Cooks, 23, and Butler, who turned 27 this month, are in the same class as rising young fourth-year stars. But Butler just happens to play on the side of the ball that’s in more desperate need of repair in New Orleans.

Maybe it would even be enough for those Saints fans who were seething over the weekend to wind up celebrating by the end of this week.

Now, a lot still needs to happen for Butler to wind up in a Saints uniform -- which is why the two sides didn’t just simply make a 1-for-1 swap in the first place.

Butler is visiting the Saints on Thursday, Sean Payton told the Associated Press. But he is a restricted free agent, which means the Patriots have the right to match any offer he signs elsewhere or receive a first-round draft pick back as compensation if he leaves.

The Saints likely won’t give up the No. 11 pick in the draft for Butler. So they would need to A) get Butler to agree to a blockbuster long-term contract and B) get the Patriots to agree to a more palatable trade compensation.

The most likely compensation? The exact same No. 32 draft pick that New Orleans just acquired from New England in the Cooks trade. Perhaps they could discuss a second-round pick or a second and third instead, but No. 32 makes the most sense.

That’s still a hefty price tag. No restricted free agent has changed teams in exchange for a first-round pick since receiver Laveranues Coles went from the New York Jets to the Washington Redskins in 2003.

Plus, the Saints would likely have to pay Butler somewhere in the range of the $13-14 million per year like top free-agent cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Stephon Gilmore netted this year.

The Saints would be paying a premium for Butler, no doubt -- maybe even “overpaying.” But I’m fine with the idea of overpaying when it comes to the Saints’ two most glaring needs at edge rusher and cornerback. Payton labeled them as the team’s two “musts” this offseason for good reason.

If Butler becomes the Saints’ No. 1 cornerback alongside No. 1A Delvin Breaux, that defense suddenly looks a lot better. And it will in turn help that pass rush, which just made a slight improvement with the signing of free agent Alex Okafor on Tuesday.

And as always, filling the biggest needs in free agency would allow the Saints to target the best available player in the draft, without feeling forced into reaching for a specific position.

Last but not least, the biggest concern for the Saints should be, “What do we see in Butler that the Patriots don’t?”

Although Butler went from an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama to a Super Bowl hero as a rookie in 2014 to a bona fide No. 1 starter over the past two years, the Patriots are apparently willing to let him go via trade rather than sign him to a long-term extension themselves. Instead, they went out and signed Gilmore for $13 million per year.

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss broke down the reasons why Tuesday, starting with the fact that they are different types of corners, with Gilmore a little bigger and longer at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds than Butler at 5-11, 190.

“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,” scouting analyst Dan Hatman told Reiss. “(Butler) is a very competent corner in this league and will be compensated well when that time comes. 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.”

Still, Reiss pointed out that Butler has held up very well in man-to-man matchups against the likes of Antonio Brown. And the Saints already have the bigger, more physical Breaux if they want that physicality in certain matchups.

Plus, as Reiss wrote, Butler “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.”

If I’m the Saints, that works for me.