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Ask PFW: The Butler dilemma

Fans' questions answered in our weekly PFW mailbag.


I'm wondering if you can explain to me the logistics of restricted free agency, and how it relates to Malcolm Butler's contract situation in particular. If Butler were to reach free agency, under what conditions could another team sign him? Would this team be required to forfeit anything to the Patriots as part of the signing? And is there anything the Patriots could do ahead of time, aside from signing him to a new, long-term contract, to limit the chances of another team scooping him up? Thanks! 

Jon Kerr, Toronto*

Happy to, Jon. Let's start with the end of your question, since it's the best-case scenario. Yes, the Patriots could (and should) address Butler's contract situation before too long. That is to say, before the end of this calendar year, at the latest, and preferably before then.

Butler is entering year three in the NFL and with the Patriots. Assuming he continues on the trajectory he's on – from undrafted rookie to Super Bowl star to Pro Bowl cornerback – he's positioning himself as one of the best players in the league at one of the most high-profile positions. Cornerback is also perhaps the most physically difficult position to play in all of football.

He's an excellent young player, and a decent young man, so far as we can tell from our dealings with him. In short, the kind of player you want to keep on your team long-term. So, it would behoove both sides to get a deal done before Butler reaches the end of his current rookie contract, which expires after this coming season.

That said, if such a deal doesn't get done, New England has the option of offering Butler a restricted free agent tender contract, and there are various levels at which they could tender him: first-round, second-round, original-round. The dollar values of these one-year contracts change from year to year, but the most recent ones were $3.6 million, $2.5 million, and $1.6 million respectively, to give you an idea.

Let's assume the Patriots offer Butler the highest tender, a first-round qualifier. Any of the 31 other NFL clubs could counter by offering Butler a contract of whatever length and value they deem competitive to lure him away. For argument's sake, let's assume it's a six-year, $60 million deal with $30 million guaranteed.

If the Patriots want to keep Butler, they would at least have to match that offer. If that's too steep a price, they would let Butler sign with that club, which would then have to compensate the Patriots by surrendering their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The same rules would apply for the second-round tender (the other club would surrender a second-round choice), but not for the original-round tender in this case because Butler was not drafted. So, it would not make business sense for New England to tender Butler in the lowest tier.

In a perfect world, though, the Patriots and Butler resolve this issue before it goes much further.

Erik Scalavino*

First of all I want to say thanks for the great job you and your team at PFW do. As a fan abroad from Germany, it's the best way to be up to date with the newest rumors at Foxborough. As I will finally achieve my goal and visit Gillette Stadium in preseason Week 2 against the Bears, I was wondering if TB12 is allowed to play the preseason games if the DeflateGate suspension begins in regular season? And in case he is allowed, how likely his appearance during preseason is, as Garoppolo is about to start the first four games of regular season? Would be pleased to hear your opinion. Kind regards and GO PATS! 

André Wunder*

Yes, if Brady's suspension holds, it would begin with Week 1 of the regular season, but not before then, meaning he is eligible to take part in all team activities up to the start of the regular season. So, he will be available (barring injury, of course) for the preseason. How much he actually plays is another story. Even during a normal summer, Brady doesn't typically see much action in August games. At best, he'll get his normal amount of preseason game snaps, which is low to begin with, so, don't get your hopes too high. But have a safe trip and enjoy your maiden voyage to Foxborough! 

Erik Scalavino*

Is it possible we may see some 2 TE/2RB formations this season? I imagine having [Dion] Lewis, [James] White, [Rob] Gronkowski, [Martellus] Bennett, and [Julian] Edelman on the field at the same time would give any defense nightmares. Would that even be a legal formation? Or would one of the RBs or TEs need to line up as a wide receiver? 

Mike Butler*

It's most certainly legal to have two tight ends and two running backs on the field at the same time, in their normal positions. None of them would be required to line up as a traditional wide receiver. They'd have to adhere to the rules about having seven men on the line of scrimmage, and one eligible receiver not covering up another in the formation, but yes, it's definitely doable.

Now, is it possible we see such a formation? Of course! Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to tinker and experiment with formations, and given the wealth of talent at his disposal, I'd almost be stunned if we didn't see this combination at some point in 2016. This is contingent, of course, that all the players you mentioned are healthy and on the active roster at the same time, which is far from guaranteed. 

Erik Scalavino*

Patriots Nation is salivating at the prospect of the two-tight end set, however, in D.J. Foster and Dion Lewis, they might also have a pretty unique set of sub-backs, adept at quick darts, catches out the back field and turning nothing into something. What would a two back set with those look like? Would it be successful? 

Colin Brady*

I'm not yet prepared to speculate on what Foster, an undrafted rookie, can bring to this offense because, for one thing, we haven't seen him in any meaningful action, so, I don't know what he can or can't do, in terms of his skills. And more importantly, the odds are remote that he'll even make the team. 

Erik Scalavino*

Is there any chance [rookie WR Malcolm] Mitchell will get a starting role? I feel like he's the same build as [Aaron] Dobson except he played in a better conference. 

Robert Miles*

Well, let's examine this question methodically. At best, there can be a maximum of three starting wide receiver positions, if you safely assume that Rob Gronkowski will occupy the tight end spot and a running back to be determined (Dion Lewis, if he's healthy) is the starting running back.

If there are three wideout spots up for grabs, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (when healthy) would almost certainly get two of them, and free agent Chris Hogan, who was handed a heft contract this offseason, gets the third.

With the free-agent signing of TE Martellus Bennett this offseason, I would assume he's going to be on the field a considerable amount with Gronkowski, meaning you now have just two wide receivers on the field, in most personnel packages. New England empties its backfield quite often, going with five receivers, but at least one of those is usually a running back.

So, unless Edelman, Amendola, and/or  aren't ready to perform physically come September 11 at Arizona, I find it difficult to envision a scenario in which Mitchell earns a starting job – unless, of course, he thoroughly outplays Hogan for the outside receiver's position. Which is certainly a possibility I'm willing to consider. In all likelihood, though, I'm guessing Mitchell will have a reserve role on offense and perhaps see more opportunities in the kicking game somehow. 

Erik Scalavino*

Who is the chief trade scout for the [Patriots] organization? 

Brian Leminster*

There isn't anyone with that specific title or job description in this or any other NFL organization, to my knowledge. As part of his duties as director of player personnel, however, Nick Caserio would most likely be the primary point of contact for the Patriots when it comes to fielding or placing calls about prospective trades with other teams. Bill Belichick, of course, would also be involved in that process in some fashion, whether it's initiating any deal offers or deciding, ultimately, whether or not to execute such offers.

The Patriots like to do most things as a team, and it's a team approach, I'd say, that goes into evaluating trade offers. Belichick and Caserio rely heavily on their scouting department to have compiled information about players across the league. So, when a team calls the Patriots to offer a trade, Belichick and Caserio can look at their scouts' research to help them decide. Same with offering a trade to another club. They'll consult their scouts' notes, in most cases, before placing a call to propose any deal.

It's a difficult question for us to answer specifically, Brian, considering no one is really allowed to be inside the football offices when such transactions are being consummated, but that is our best guess given the way both Belichick and Caserio have described the process with us and the other media in the past. 

Erik Scalavino*

Is there any update on Nate [Solder]'s precious baby? I think about him often. 

Maureen Hafner*

For those who might be unaware, what Maureen is referencing is the rare form of kidney cancer which Solder's son, Hudson, is battling. That news was announced by the Patriots' left tackle back in November. This past February, we learned that Solder had joined forces with country music star Garth Brooks to co-host a flag football camp for underprivileged children. However, it's been a while since we've had a chance to speak with Solder, who himself is recovering from a right arm/elbow injury from last season and hasn't taken part in spring practices. Next opportunity we get, I'm sure that's a topic that will be discussed and we'll let you know, in some fashion, what we find out. 

Erik Scalavino*

Quick question. Do you think there will be kickoffs in the NFL in 2020?

David Beckett*

An interesting and relevant question, David. It seems like the NFL is trending toward phasing out kickoffs altogether, ostensibly for player healthy and safety.

A quick refresher course on the subject: For many years (1970s, 80s, early 90s), the standard kickoff line was the 35, but when kickers started getting bigger and stronger-legged a generation ago, most kickoffs were sailing through the end zone. So, the league moved the line back five yards to the 30 to generate more kickoff returns.

Exciting though those plays could be, they were also potentially violent and injurious to players. So, a few seasons ago, in an effort to increase the number of touchbacks (and thus, reduce the number of high-speed collisions so often seen on kickoff returns), the league moved the standard kickoff line back up to the 35. The result? More touchbacks, of course.

Now, a new rule going into effective this coming season will move the starting offensive line of scrimmage post-touchbacks from the 20 to the 25, which may (or may not) encourage receiving teams to forgo returning kicks altogether. If there's a sharp decline in overall returns this season (meaning more accepted touchbacks), it's conceivable that the discussion could turn to eliminating kickoffs from the game altogether. That would take place on an official basis at any future NFL Annual Meetings, which take place in late March.

The year 2020 is not far away, but I'd say it's a distinct possibility that, by that time, kickoffs could become a historical footnote.

Erik Scalavino *

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