If there’s one player who is both a major uncertainty and, simultaneously, a crucially important piece in the New England Patriots’ plans, it’s Malcolm Butler. The Patriots coaxed Butler out of retirement to return to the NFL after one year away from the game.
Now that he’s back, they might just need him to be their top cornerback — or, at the very least, a starter.
“Malcolm works hard, like he always has,” head coach Bill Belichick said before Tuesday’s voluntary practice during organized team activities. “Very competitive, out there scrapping for balls. His aggressiveness, play style — we’re not in pads, but yeah, looks like it’s about the same.”
That’s good news for New England, which has Butler, Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Terrance Mitchell, Jack Jones and Marcus Jones at cornerback, among others. The Patriots need Butler be Butler again. He was excellent in 2020 with the Tennessee Titans, though it’s unclear at what caliber he was playing for the Arizona Cardinals prior to his retirement.
“Malcolm’s the same player, in my opinion,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said Tuesday. “He comes out, he works hard and just wants to get better every day. He hasn’t lost that itch for the game.”
Butler played for the Patriots from 2014 to 2017 when he ascended from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero and shutdown cornerback. When it came time to pay Butler, however, New England left that to the Titans, who employed Butler from 2018 to 2020. He spent the 2021 offseason with the Cardinals, but decided to retire for a year in August prior to the season.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove, especially to myself,” Butler said on the back fields at Gillette Stadium Tuesday. “If I do it myself, I’ll prove it to my teammates at the same time. So that’s why I’m working hard every day and trying to stay focused.”
DeVante Parker on Mac Jones’ leadership: ‘That’s what this team needs’
The New England Patriots are no longer a team in transition — at least not like they were in 2021. Coach and general manager Bill Belichick stuck with a similar roster over the course of the offseason unlike last offseason when the Patriots saw a massive amount of turnover.
The biggest constant is quarterback Mac Jones, who enters his second season in the NFL. His improvements should translate to success for New England, even after an offseason where the Patriots appeared to lose more talent than they added. But one of those newly-minted Patriots seemed impressed with the team’s quarterback.
“He’s a leader,” receiver DeVante Parker said after practice on Tuesday. “He’s a young guy, but he’s vocal as a leader. That’s what this team needs. And even though I’ve just been out here a few weeks, I still see it.”
New England has conducted a handful of voluntary organized team activities where they have spent time installing the system. Tuesday’s session was mostly comprised of positional drills and conditioning. That hasn’t stopped Jones from developing rapport with his receivers in the deep game and on contested catches. That’s one of the many ways Parker could contribute in 2022.
“That starts in practice,” he said. “He sees it. He likes what he sees. If there’s a confidence in him to have confidence in me to throw the ball up.”