FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Once you live in the penthouse, everything else is going to be an adjustment.
That sort of sums up the New England Patriots' outlook at cornerback, where they were living large in 2014. With Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner as the 1-2 cornerback combo from Week 7 to the end of the regular season, the Patriots allowed just 65 second-half points, the second-lowest mark in the NFL over that span.
Revis’ first trip back to Gillette Stadium since winning the Super Bowl with the Patriots -- which comes Sunday when the Jets come to town -- makes it timely and topical to shine the spotlight on what Bill Belichick's club has left at the position.
It all starts with Malcolm Butler.
When it was mentioned to Belichick on Monday that the Patriots were relying more on Butler than they were in 2014, he said simply, “There’s no question about that.”
Consider that as an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama last year, Butler played 182 defensive snaps in the regular season (16.6 percent).
This year, he’s already played 349 snaps in five games, a 98.6 percent clip.
So in essence, Butler is playing the same role that Revis did last year for the Patriots.
“His role is that he’s out on the field for almost every defensive play, so that’s a big change from where it was last year,” Belichick said of the Super Bowl hero. “Malcolm is a good football player and he’s played very well for us both last year and this year, but just given where we are in the secondary and the level of improvement, I think no matter who we had on our team that he would be playing a lot of football for us. So that’s really a credit to him and how much he’s improved from last year to this year.”
That’s high praise from Belichick, who has sometimes matched Butler against the opponent’s top receiver, like he often did with Revis last season. That’s how it unfolded in the season-opener against the Steelers, with Butler mostly on the dangerous Antonio Brown.
And while the results have been a mixed bag at times (a reminder that there is truly only one Revis), one thing that isn’t up for debate is Butler’s competitiveness. He hasn’t backed down, whether it’s in coverage or run support.
There are flashes of elite play.
For example, his coverage on Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton on an incomplete pass up the right sideline on Sunday night (second quarter, 7:29 left) was textbook cornerback play; solid jam near the line, then the fluid turn of the hips to run with the speedy Hilton before turning back to look for the ball and swatting it away. His sound tackle in pursuit of receiver Donte Moncrief in the third quarter (10:47) to produce a third-down stop was also impressive.
“He’s a good football player and is playing well,” Belichick said. “He does a lot of good things for us, and there is still a lot of room for him to improve. I don’t think he’s hit the peak, but he’s getting better.”
During Sunday's NBC broadcast of the Patriots-Colts game, analyst Cris Collinsworth relayed the following: "What did [Bill] Belichick tell us? No question about it, Malcolm Butler, right now, is our best cornerback."
While Butler is the clear-cut No. 1 option, the Patriots have had turnover opposite him in the spot formerly occupied by Browner (now with the Saints). Based on the season-opener, the hope was that veteran Tarell Brown would fill that role, but he was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Saturday (foot).
Brown was effective when he played, but at 30 years old, the Patriots knew there was a higher risk of injury for a player coming off surgery on his foot in the offseason.
Meanwhile, the hope of a Bradley Fletcher reclamation after he fizzled out in Philadelphia in 2014 never came to life, and he was let go after three games. It was also unfortunate that seventh-round draft choice Darryl Roberts -- who flashed some promise in training camp -- landed on injured reserve with a wrist injury sustained in the preseason opener.
So that has thrust third-year man Logan Ryan into the No. 2 spot, and he’s coming off arguably the best two games of his career.
If he can keep it up, the Patriots should be competitive with a Butler-Ryan pairing, although the depth behind them remains a question mark with undrafted free-agent Justin Coleman (Tennessee) and third-year man Rashaan Melvin (claimed on waivers from Baltimore on Oct. 14).
If Belichick can pull off a midseason trade for a cornerback, similar to what he did in 2012 with Aqib Talib, it would address depth at this most pressing area on the roster. But a lot of things would have to fall into place for that type of impact move to happen.
So for now, the Patriots will roll with what they have.
They’re no longer living in the penthouse, but with Butler stepping into Revis’ role, it’s also looked better than some projected.