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Brown: Patriots appear correct to have bet on Gilmore over Butler

  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup (13) stretches for the ball as Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) defends during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. The Tennessee Titans won 28-14.(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth) Michael Ainsworth

  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Allen Hurns (17) runs into the end zone against Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) Ron Jenkins

  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup (13) stretches for the ball as Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) defends during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. The Tennessee Titans won 28-14. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins) Ron Jenkins

  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) runs into the end zone as Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth) Michael Ainsworth

  • New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) during Monday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills, October 29, 2018, in Orchard Park, NY. (AP Photo/Chris Cecere) Chris Cecere



For the Monitor
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The writing was on the wall nearly a year before Super Bowl LII.

On March 16, 2017, the New England Patriots gave Stephon Gilmore, a free agent cornerback from the Bills, a five-year contract worth $65 million, with about $40 million guaranteed. At the time many observers, even those familiar with Gilmore’s exceptional play in Buffalo, were wondering how the Pats’ new defensive back had intercepted a $16 million-per-year payday that many thought would go to Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, the undrafted free agent who had been in their locker room for four seasons, taken home two rings and for a brief time, blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Instead, Butler had to sit tight in 2017 with a $4 million tender. Some figured the Patriots might put together another big deal for Butler in 2018, but the 2017 offseason saw an unhappy Butler rumored in a trade with New Orleans that never emerged, and as the season wore on, it became clear that Gilmore was worth the money Bill Belichick gave him. And then, 325 days after Gilmore arrived, Butler’s time with Patriots ended on the bench in Minneapolis as New England lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles.

As the Patriots prepare to face Butler’s new team, the Tennessee Titans, in Nashville on Sunday, their first encounter with their old teammate finds Butler struggling while Gilmore is soaring. Butler, at least statistically, has been one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL, at least among players with heavy workloads. Gilmore, on the other hand, has not only been among the best in the league, he’s been one of the best Belichick has had at the position during his time with the Patriots.

The Patriots head coach would not discuss Butler by name in Wednesday’s press conference. When asked about Butler and former Pats cornerback Logan Ryan, Belichick focused on Tennessee’s success as a defensive unit, where they have given up a league-best 17.6 points per game.

“Yeah, well, they lead the league in defense,” Belichick said. “So, yeah, they’re good, don’t give up big plays.”

The decision to bench Butler in the Super Bowl will be scrutinized for as long as people care about football. Belichick said it was not a disciplinary decision and Butler later acknowledged he was not “locked in and focused 100 percent” after arriving late in Minneapolis following an illness. Many point to the fact that one stop, just one play, could have turned that game in New England’s favor, and suggest that Butler may have been capable of delivering that play.

Regardless of whether that is true, his play during the 2017 season had been inconsistent at best and almost certainly the Patriots were not going to give Butler anything close to the five-year, $61 million deal he received in Tennessee. Is it possible Belichick foresaw Butler’s decline after 2016 and decided to bet on Gilmore instead? Whether he did or not, the Patriots appear to have made the correct bet. According to stats compiled by Pro Football Focus, Butler has allowed 39 catches for 618 yards and seven touchdowns – all of which are dead-last in the NFL – in his first half season with the Titans. Meanwhile, Pro Football Focus has Gilmore rated fifth overall among cornerbacks.

Meanwhile, Gilmore just completed a four-game stretch in which he primarily defended the Chiefs’ Sammy Watkins, the Bears’ Allen Robinson, the Bills’ Kelvin Benjamin and the Packers’ Devante Adams. According to stats compiled by Evan Lazar of CLNS Media, Gilmore allowed six catches on 19 targets for 78 yards and no touchdowns in those four games. That’s a 45.5 passer rating against from the combined efforts of Patrick Mahomes, Mitch Trubisky, Derek Anderson and Aaron Rodgers.

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots linebacker, said that he has no plans to demote Butler, and that his struggles are a result of technique that could be corrected. Certainly fans who appreciated Butler’s contributions in New England hope there is truth in that. But to this point, it is clear that Butler has not been the player who delivered the game-saving play in Super Bowl XLIX and became a star in 2015 and 2016.

(Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.)