In 2015, Malcolm Butler was a New England hero; an undrafted free agent rookie who made the biggest play in Super Bowl history to secure the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 49. Three years later, he saw exactly one snap as his team was picked apart by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in a 41-33 Super Bowl 52 defeat.
His roller-coaster career is moving on to its next set of peaks and valleys, but it won’t be in Foxborough. On Tuesday, the former All-Pro cornerback agreed to a five-year, $61 million deal with the Tennessee Titans, that will include more than $30 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. It’s the blockbuster contract he sought but never received from the Patriots.
It’s the next step on a four-year career that’s included three Super Bowl appearances. Butler broke into the league in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of Division II West Alabama. slowly earning Bill Belichick’s trust before stepping up to intercept Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson late in the fourth quarter of a 28-24 Super Bowl win. He followed that up with a second-team All-Pro performance in his first year as a full-time starter, becoming a standout in a loaded Patriots defense.
He set a career high in 2016 with four interceptions, but his play wasn’t enough for New England to lock Butler, then a restricted free agent, into a long-term contract. Instead, he signed for a below-market one-year, $3.9 million tender that would allow him full-fledged free agency this spring. He failed to keep his momentum moving forward in 2017; while he made 15 starts, his play declined as a revamped Patriots secondary allowed more passing yards than all but one other team in the NFL.
Even so, his prior resume led him to a five-year contract and a fresh start with the Titans.
What makes Butler worth more than $30 million in guarantees?
It was a strange year for Butler in 2017, but even in his worst season as a full-time starter, he was still a league-average corner who showed flashes of being the kind of shut-down defender he’d been in 2015 and 2016. He struggled to adjust alongside new addition Stephon Gilmore and even wound up benched in Super Bowl 52, where his only appearance came on special teams.
Signing with the Titans will free him from Belichick’s whims and give him a longer leash as he works to justify his first big-money contract. While Butler doesn’t have the elite size that’s been valued more and more in recent seasons (he’s 5’11), his fluid hip movement makes him an able man-to-man coverage corner who can follow everyone from slot receivers to deep threats. He’s been even better in the playoffs; in seven postseason starts he’s knocked down eight passes and made 33 tackles.
It’s also not exactly a complete change of pace for Butler. In Tennessee he’ll join former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who is the Titans’ new head coach, and general manager Jon Robinson, who cut his teeth as a Patriots scout.
At 28 years old, Butler’s best seasons may still be in front of him. He’ll join a Titans secondary that can use the help after finishing No. 25 in the NFL in passing yards allowed. But with Butler, Logan Ryan, Adoree Jackson, and Kevin Byard in the secondary, good times could be ahead for the Tennessee defense.