How Patriots’ Malcolm Butler signing trickles down to rest of defense

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis (84) reaches for a pass to score a touchdown against New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 13, 2018.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis (84) reaches for a pass to score a touchdown against New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) during the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Jan. 13, 2018. /

If you took a time machine from February 2018 to today, you would be stunned to see the New England Patriots bring back Malcolm Butler after the Super Bowl LII debacle. But alas, the Patriots did so to bolster the secondary.

After losing big-name stars in Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson in a short period of time, Bill Belichick decided to let bygones be bygones and sign Butler to a two-year deal worth up to $9 million. Now, what does the return of the Western Alabama product mean for this Patriots defense?

For starters, it could open up a door for this team to bypass using their first-round pick (21st overall) on a cornerback. With some other issues facing this team, such as the need for a stand-up linebacker and a true vertical deep threat in the passing game, the Butler addition might signal to the fans that some first-round cornerback prospects (Kyler Gordon, Trent McDuffie, Andrew Booth Jr.) are now off of the board for the Pats.

Slot man Jonathan Jones, who saw his 2021 season end abruptly after shoulder surgery in the fall, should be back in an enhanced role. His return should help lessen the blow of a secondary that no longer has a true elite cornerback. Since 2020, Jones has had a PFF grade of 73.9 while playing in the slot, good for sixth among all cornerbacks. Losing Jones hurt last year, but his return will be positive for the Patriots, who fell behind the eight ball in terms of trying to end their season on a strong note.

The cornerback room currently consists of the undervalued Jalen Mills, former second-round selection Joejuan Williams, special teams ace Justin Bethel, the aforementioned Jones, second-year CB Shaun Wade, Washington product Myles Bryant, as well as the newly-signed Terrence Mitchell and Jabrill Peppers (who is listed as a safety, but can move around the secondary).

This isn’t really a group that jumps out at you off paper, especially when the teams in the AFC outside of Foxboro have some lethal wide receivers in the mix.

The Patriots’ 2022 schedule is a brutal one for those trying to cover said wide receivers. With games against Tyreek Hill and the Dolphins, Stefon Diggs and the Bills, and Devante Adams and the Raiders, Butler and Co. have their hands full all year long.

The return of Butler, who has primarily been a zone coverage corner later in his career with Tennessee (and for a cup of coffee with Arizona), could clue us in on how Belichick and his defensive staff plans to run their defense in 2022. With Jackson leaving for LA, the Patriots lost their best man corner and best ball hawk. The shift in secondary coverages is a sign that the speed needed to keep up in man coverage is not all the way there for New England.

With a slower unit than normal, they could be playing a lot more off-ball defense and move away from their heavy usage of man-to-man. The signing of Mitchell, a lanky 5-foot-11-inch zone corner, was the first outside signing of the offseason, and the first shoe to drop.

Mitchell, who spent time on six different teams before signing a one year, $3 million deal with New England, was an underwhelming acquisition for the fanbase clamoring for a big move. While he’s on a cuttable contract come August, Mitchell can provide solid depth for a team that’s in need of a cornerback.

This change in defensive schemes trickles down to the front seven as well. With Dont’a Hightower facing the open market, the team is in the mix for a linebacker who can cover the pass as well as run sideline-to-sideline, something Hightower has struggled with since his return from his COVID-19 opt-out in 2020.

Georgia’s Nakobe Dean and Utah’s Devin Lloyd are the top two linebackers in this upcoming class. After watching the abysmal playoff game against Buffalo, it’s clear the Patriots need an off-the-ball linebacker to keep up with the division rival. With the groundwork laid at corner, the Patriots should look to make this their first priority come round one.

I consider Dean and Lloyd to be 1A and 1B in this draft and the Patriots’ defense can improve vastly if one of them comes to Foxborough. Dean struggled in his Pro Day on March 16 and, because of the high ceilings of some of the incoming receivers, he could see a small skid on some teams’ draft boards as a result, which would help the Patriots.

While Butler’s ability, combined with his age, is a question mark hovering around him, the team can value a player who has experience in the league to line up against some of the NFL’s premier pass catchers. But with the speed, physicality and starpower of the wide receivers in today’s league, the defensive gameplan needs to cater to the strengths of the current personnel.