This article originally appeared in the July 18 issue of Patriots Footall Weekly. To subscribe, click here.
When the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis three years ago, it marked one of the most high-profile additions in franchise history. The move paid immediate dividends, as Revis - along with a relatively unknown rookie named Malcolm Butler - helped the club win its fourth Super Bowl title that same season.
This past offseason, New England added another cornerback who, although less accomplished than the future Hall of Famer Revis, nonetheless became the most expensive free agent New England ever signed. As a result, there will be considerable expectations surrounding Stephon Gilmore, he of the five-year, $65 million contract.
To many observers, Gilmore's arrival appeared to spell the end of Butler's brief but eventful tenure in Foxborough. Butler, of course, made the memorable game-saving interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX, then replaced Revis as the team's top corner the past two seasons. Along the way, he contributed to yet another Super Bowl championship for New England in 2016.
Butler became a restricted free agent following Super Bowl LI and, given his meteoric rise in the NFL, was seen as being able to command top dollar for his position. The business-savvy Patriots, however, did what they felt was in their best interest and offered Butler the highest possible restricted free agent tender contract (one year, $3.9 million) and allowed him to have discussions with other teams while he mulled his options.
New England signed Gilmore to the mega-deal, and Butler made a highly publicized visit to the New Orleans Saints. It looked as if Butler was bayou-bound.
After some talks with the Saints, Butler ultimately never signed an offer sheet and the teams couldn't come to an agreement on a trade. The corner eventually signed his tender and will be part of the best cornerback duo the Patriots have had since that storied 2014 campaign.
On the heels of a solid 2016 campaign, former starting corner Logan Ryan accepted a free agent offer to join the Tennessee Titans, but the bigger and more accomplished Gilmore (a former top-10 pick by Buffalo who's coming off a Pro Bowl season) should make for a more aggressive duo with Butler. Despite not receiving the hefty contract he might have been expecting, the 27-year-old Butler sounded and acted this spring like a player whose focus is entirely on the upcoming season.
"I'm here. This is my team," Butler said. "We got a better player [in Gilmore], another good player on this team. Anything to help the team, I'm down with. The past is the past. I'm just here to do a job and do anything to help the team win. Just moving forward. Whatever happens, happens.
"Just got to keep working. Ignore the noise and keep working no matter what. You've got a job to do no matter where you're at. I'm glad to be here to do this job."
While there's no mystery about who the starters will be, there could be some intrigue at the No. 3 corner spot. Returning veteran Eric Rowe, entering his third NFL season and second as a Patriot, has the inside track, based on spring practice observations, but could face a challenge from any number of young players including Justin Coleman, Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Jones and an undrafted rookie or two.
At the back end of the secondary, the Patriots are equally equipped with talent and depth. The team welcomes back incumbent starters in Devin McCourty, a perennial captain, and Patrick Chung. The third safety, Duron Harmon, was a free agent earlier this year but chose to re-sign with New England, giving the Patriots desired consistency on the depth chart.
"Yeah, it's definitely something I think we enjoy and we like rather than having to restart [with new players], which we've done before," observed McCourty during the spring, "but I think coming in with some type of background and some foundation always helps. We kind of put the pressure on ourselves to kind of pick up where we left off. It's something we've just got to keep working at.
"Getting [Gilmore] in here with the group that's kind of played together has been good. I think he's fit in very well, and it comes down to all of us just coming in, putting in the work each day. He's done that."
After those top three, there could be some competition for limited job openings. Given his ascension as a special teams contributor, Nate Ebner, entering the final year of his current contract, appears to have a measure of job security. Ditto for Brandon King. That leaves Jordan Richards, a former second-round draft choice, perhaps in a battle for a final spot with several undrafted rookies.
CB Stephon Gilmore (FA, Buffalo)
CB Logan Ryan (FA, Tennessee)
Stephon Gilmore - New England's highest-priced free agent signing ever carries the weight of expectation with him.
Who will emerge as the third cornerback?
By retaining Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon while adding Gilmore, New England's secondary is deep, experienced and potentially better than it's been in years.
CB Malcolm Butler
CB Stephon Gilmore
S Devin McCourty
S Patrick Chung
CB Position Coach:
Josh Boyer, 12th season with Patriots / 12th NFL season
S Position Coach:
Stephen Belichick, 6th season with Patriots / 6th NFL season
|21||**Malcolm Butler (CB, 4th year)**||**16/16**||**63**||**48**||**15**||**1**||**4**||**17**||**1**||**2**|
|23||**Patrick Chung (S, 9th year)**||**16/16**||**87**||**48**||**39**||**1**||**1**||**3**||**0**||**0**|
|22||Justin Coleman (CB, 3rd year)||10/1||8||8||0||0||0||3||0||0|
|43||Nate Ebner (S, 6th year)||16/0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|24||**Stephon Gilmore (CB, 6th year)**||**15/15**||**48**||**42**||**6**||**0**||**5**||**12**||**0**||**0***|
|30||Duron Harmon (S, 5th year)||16/4||27||22||5||0||1||1||1||0|
|41||Cyrus Jones (CB, 2nd year)||10/1||7||3||4||0||0||0||0||0|
|34||David Jones (S, rookie)|
|31||Jonathan Jones (CB, 2nd year)||16/1||6||5||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|29||D.J. Killings (DB, rookie)|
|36||Brandon King (S, 3rd year)||16/0||1||1||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|33||Will Likely (CB, rookie)|
|32||**Devin McCourty (S, 8th year)**||**16/16**||**78**||**64**||**14**||**0**||**1**||**7**||**1**||**1**|
|42||Kenny Moore (CB, rookie)|
|37||Jordan Richards (S, 3rd year)||11/0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|25||Eric Rowe (CB, 3rd year)||9/7||26||20||6||0||1||7||0||0|
|27||Dwayne Thomas (DB, rookie)|
|26||Jason Thompson (DB, rookie)|
|35||Damarius Travis (DB, rookie)|
Stats for 2016 - bold indicates projected starter
*stats with Buffalo