NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and Head Coach Sean Payton are exploring a trade with the New England Patriots for restricted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Butler left town without a deal after visiting with Saints officials Wednesday night and Thursday, though Payton clearly remains smitten with the improbable hero of Super Bowl XLIX.
That much we know. What we don’t know is what it will ultimately cost the Black and Gold in terms of signing bonus and guaranteed money for the player and draft pick(s) for the defending Super Bowl champions.
It all depends on how badly the Saints covet him. If Butler is seeking Stephon Gilmore type money from New Orleans, I’d say he’s out of his ever lovin’ mind. Gilmore recently signed a five-year, $65 million free-agent contract with New England that features $31 million in guaranteed money, including an $18 million signing bonus.
Gilmore now supplants Butler as the No. 1 cornerback in New England (in terms of cash payout), essentially leaving the next move in this chess game up to the Saints.
I know this: Quarterback Drew Brees isn’t getting any younger, nor is Saints owner Tom Benson who’d like nothing better than to win a second Lombardi Trophy while he still can fully appreciate the moment.
There are still contractual and negotiation miles that the Patriots, Saints and Team Butler must travel before a complicated deal could be struck but the window of opportunity remains open 10 days into free agency.
On paper, Butler checks all the boxes for a pass defense-challenged Saints defense. He’s regarded as a top-shelf cover corner that Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen could pair with their third-year undrafted cornerback Delvin Breaux.
And yet I wonder if Butler, a 27-year-old undrafted free agent from the University of West Alabama, is merely a product of a tried-and-true defensive system who has greatly benefited from the combined genius of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and bushy-bearded defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Butler’s stats are relatively modest — six interceptions, one forced fumble, one sack, 35 pass breakups, 145 tackles and one Pro Bowl selection. But he’s better than any defensive back currently on the Saints roster and he has two Super Bowl rings (XLIX, LI) to prove it.
Still, would there be all this fuss if, say, he hadn’t stepped in front of intended Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and intercepted a pass with 20 seconds remaining to preserve the Patriots 28-24 victory in Super Bowl XLIX?
Another Super Bowl hero cornerback comes to mind. Remember Larry Brown, a relatively unheralded member of the Dallas Cowboys secondary? He became the first cornerback to be named MVP of a league championship game after collecting two INTs in a 27-17 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX to cap off the 1995 season.
In the offseason, Brown parlayed that performance into a lucrative five-year, $12.5 million contract with the Oakland Raiders, only to be waived after playing just 12 games in two years.
I also think of safety Jairus Byrd, who had no Super Bowl heroics but somehow coaxed a then-record six-year, $54 million contract from Saints officials in March 2014 that featured $28 million in guaranteed money. By all accounts, Byrd’s resume’ was impeccable — a three-time Pro Bowler with 22 INTs, a game-changing, ball-hawking difference maker in the back end of the secondary.
Byrd turned out to be a terrible investment — a bust in every sense of the word — and was released a week ago.
Brown turned out to be much ado about nothing for the Raiders, returning to the Cowboys for his final NFL season in 1998 with his tail between his legs.
It remains to be seen how this story plays out between the Saints and Patriots, who’ve already orchestrated a blockbuster deal involving speedy diminutive wide receiver Brandin Cooks and multiple draft picks this month.
But it’s clear Malcolm is in the middle.