FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Restricted free-agent cornerback Malcolm Butler is scheduled to continue his visit with the New Orleans Saints on Thursday, which moves his departure from the New England Patriots one step closer to becoming a reality.
How did it possibly get to this point?
It is a question many Patriots fans have been asking, especially those who rightly point out the franchise is better off with Butler, and Butler himself -- who will forever be revered in the region for his game-saving Super Bowl XLIX interception -- is better off as a Patriot.
So why can’t they work it out?
Everyone, it seems, has offered up a theory to that:
• The Patriots are using their leverage and are unwilling to budge before they have to, as Butler is a restricted free agent, not unrestricted.
• Butler’s agent, Derek Simpson, is an Alabama-based attorney negotiating his first big NFL contract, and that has created an added obstacle to the team in negotiations.
• Bill Belichick simply sees cornerback Stephon Gilmore, whom the Patriots signed to a five-year, $65 million contract, as a better player who offers more options when matching up against the growing number of bigger receivers in the game.
• Butler’s financial demands have been too high, while the Patriots’ have been too low.
There might be some truth to any of those theories, but instincts tell me that all of them probably miss hitting the bull's-eye of what could better help everyone understand this surprising turn of events.
Acknowledging that a lot happens behind the scenes that many are unaware of, and never will be, I have kept coming back to something Belichick has repeated often over his 18 years as coach:
When you bring a player on to your team, you get everything that comes with him -- on and off the field.
The Patriots weigh that with every decision they make, especially the ones that come with the greatest financial risk to them. If the largest contracts they have handed out under Belichick are analyzed as if they were stocks in a portfolio, the team's risk level (outside of Aaron Hernandez) would mostly be characterized as conservative.
Why wouldn’t Butler, a 2015 Pro Bowl selection who has proved he can stay with some of the top receivers in the game, be included in that conservative category?
By most accounts, he's busted his butt, kept his mouth shut, and put the team first. Outside of not making it back for voluntary organized team activities on time in 2015, to the casual observer he seemed to be a poster child in reflecting what Belichick wants his program to represent.
So this is the true mystery.
Why is Gilmore, who has an injury history to consider, viewed as less risky to Belichick from the total-package standpoint than the durable-to-this-point Butler?
What is it about the 26-year-old Gilmore, who is married with two children, that gave the Patriots more comfort in investing so big in him when compared to the 27-year-old Butler, who is single?
When you bring a player on to your team, you get everything that comes with him — on and off the field.
The Patriots and Butler's representatives had negotiated a contract extension last year, and some involved in the process believed a deal was close to being struck. But they never finished it off, and as time passed, Butler’s price was only going up, which meant the Patriots would be taking on more risk.
It’s easy to get the sense that the Patriots have now come to a point where they realize an extension is no longer likely, in part because of their own reluctance to assume that risk.
So they shift into planning-for-the-future mode and explore getting a valuable asset for an excellent player who likely won’t be around long term.