Shocking Return of a Super Bowl Hero

The New England Patriots reunited with a old friend on Wednesday. The Super Bowl XLIX hero who was benched a few years later in Super Bowl LII has returned to wear the flying Elvis logo. CB Malcolm Butler signed a 2-year deal to come back to the Patriots after being released from the retired list by Arizona last month. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all with Bill Belichick, he pulls an extremely surprising heal-turn. The relationship had clearly soured leading up to Super Bowl LII, which was ultimately his last game in a Patriots uniform (the first stint) despite his pivotal role on the defense. All the personal aside, the Patriots are in desperate need for defensive back depth after losing top CB J.C. Jackson and Butler is certainly a guy who can step right in and contribute.

When the news came out that they brought Butler in for a visit a few days ago, I was shocked and figured it was just them kicking the tires on as many players as possible. To have the visit result in a 2-year up to $9 million contract is jaw-dropping. What must the conversations have been like when they were negotiating or asking him to sign in New England? Was Bill involved in the conversation and if so, did they talk about the benching in Super Bowl LII? I have so many questions about how this all went down and what the future will bring for this rekindled relationship.

Butler was responsible for one of the greatest plays in Patriots postseason history and will forever be remembered for that moment. Down 4 pts with 26 seconds remaining and the ball on the 1-yard line, rather than handing it off to their powerful RB Marshawn Lynch, QB Russell Wilson dropped back and threw a slant pass in the direction of WR Tyler Lockett. Butler read the play and stepped in front to intercept the pass and seal the Super Bowl victory. The Patriots win probability before the play was 12%, but it felt even lower watching it in real time. That one beautiful play forever cemented his name in Patriots lore.

In his 4 seasons with the Patriots, Butler amassed 8 INTs, 47 passes deflected, 4 forced fumbles and 172 solo tackles. He made one Pro Bowl and won 2 Super Bowl rings. The Patriots may have had a third ring if he wasn’t benched in Super Bowl LII and the defense allowed 41 points to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. CB Eric Rowe took his place in the game and allowed 137 yards on 6/7 against him. It’s to this day one of the more puzzling decisions I’ve seen Bill Belichick make. A player who can contribute and help you win a championship is essentially a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. Obviously whatever the real reason for the benching is ancient history.

This could be a sneaky good move for the Patriots. Butler is not J.C. Jackson and the defensive back group is definitely not as good as last year, but Butler is a low-risk, high reward signing. After three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Butler signed with the Arizona Cardinals. He ended up leaving the team for personal reasons at the end of camp and decided to sit out 2021. Butler could be fresher and more motivated to prove himself at 32 years old. The Patriots clearly like what they saw when he visited this week, which makes me think he’s still got the skills. He’s a veteran who knows what it’s like to win in New England and knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. He knows the play book and despite being gone for 5 seasons, should be able to fall right back into the routine. It’s certainly possible this doesn’t work, but I have a sneaky feeling it will be a great reunion.

Now that the big free agents are gone, it may be time for some more bargain signings and perhaps a trade or two to get this Patriots roster back to playoff ready. Did somebody say wide receiver?

Top 5 Offseason Decisions for the Patriots

With the 2022 offseason in full swing for the New England Patriots after their abrupt playoff exit, it’s time to take a look at the plethora of big decisions the team will be facing before the start of next season. The Pats have a whopping 20 free agents to handle this offseason including some big defensive pieces and veteran leaders, including 4 of their 5 captains from 2021. It could be a significant turning point for the franchise depending on the direction Bill Belichick takes the team. The opening day roster could look quite a bit different next season. Let’s look at some of the biggest free agents on the Pats.

1. J.C. Jackson, CB

After moving on from one of the best corner backs in football, Stephon Gilmore, Bill Belichick handed the #1 reigns to J.C. Jackson and seemingly committed to him going forward. As a whole, he had a great season and did a really nice job shutting down the opposing team’s top receiver on a weekly basis. He played in all 17 games and made his first Pro Bowl thanks to 8 interceptions and a career-high 23 passes deflected. There were some moments of struggle down the stretch, but a lot of that can be attributed to the awful depth at corner behind Jackson and the complete lack of a pass-rush in the last month of the season giving opposing QBs tons of time to read the defense and throw. If Belichick decides not to pay Jackson, he’ll have a hard time bringing in another #1 corner at a reasonable price and the Pats secondary could be in for another rough year.

Prediction: Jackson takes a small hometown discount (keyword is small), but gets paid handsomely and appropriately to stay in New England for the next few years as the #1 corner. It will solidify the top spot in the secondary and then allow Belichick to fill-in behind him.

2. Devin McCourty, S

The 27th pick in the 1st round of the 2010 draft has proven to be a critical mainstay with the Pats. Devin McCourty started as a corner after being drafted out of Rutgers, but was moved to safety a few seasons into his NFL career and it was a great decision. McCourty has anchored the Pats secondary for the last decade and at 34, this is a big decision for both him and the Patriots. One possible outcome on the table is that McCourty decides to retire and doesn’t give the Pats a chance to make a decision. If he decides to keep playing, Belichick will likely not want to give someone of his age a large contract. It might come down to how much McCourty wants to stick around in New England and how much he’s willing to budge on salary to make that happen.

Prediction: McCourty is beloved in New England and with a young child at home, I imagine he won’t want to uproot his family for a year or two elsewhere unless he has no choice. As long as the Patriots offer him a fair deal, he decides to keep playing and comes back on a team friendly 1-year deal and then retires following the season.

3. Matthew Slater, WR

Slater may be one of the most underrated players on the Pats roster. As a team captain and primary special teams player, Belichick loves Slater and his ability to impact special teams on a consistent basis. His ability to stay on the field (he hasn’t missed a game for the Patriots in 4 years) and lead the special teams efforts make him an important person to re-sign. His intangibles are his greatest asset, as he is often praised by the coaches for his leadership and recognized for his contributions to the community off the field. While Slater is another potential retirement candidate as he will turn 37 in September, his workload primarily on special teams may allow him to play deeper into his 30s than someone on the field for more snaps.

Prediction: I’m a bit more torn on this one, but think Slater will follow in McCourty’s footsteps and sign a 1-year deal to finish his career a Patriot. Like McCourty, I think this upcoming season could be his last in the NFL.

4. Trent Brown, T

One of the largest people in the league, Brown’s 6’8″ 380lb frame helps him protect the QB from the tackle spot when he’s on the field. In his 2nd stint with the Patriots in 2021, just 7 snaps into his season he hurt his calf and didn’t return until week 10. When healthy, Brown is a great tackle and is a strong QB protector and at 28, is still pretty young, but he hasn’t played a full schedule of games since 2018 (his previous Patriots season). Last year with the Las Vegas Raiders, Brown only appeared in 5 games after an IV was incorrectly placed and caused air to enter his bloodstream and nearly caused cardiac arrest. While it was a freak accident, it does add to his reputation of not being able to stay on the field. As players get older, they tend to have more injuries pop-up as well, so there is some concern for Brown long-term when he’s already struggling to stay healthy in his 20s.

Prediction: As good as Brown is, his inability to play a full season consistently will prevent the Pats from giving him starting tackle money, while another team who is worse off on the offensive line may. My guess is that Brown will sign a surprisingly large contract with another team (like he did when he went to Las Vegas) and the Patriots will either draft a depth offensive lineman or pick one up in free agency.

5. Dont’a Hightower, LB

Super Bowl hero Dont’a Hightower returned this year after opting out in 2020 due to COVID. For his standards, Hightower had a relatively quiet season this past year and didn’t seem to have nearly the same impact he’s had in the past, both in stats and with the eye test. As a point of comparison, he had just 1.5 sacks this year as opposed to 6 in 2019 and had fewer tackles overall compared to 2019. The sack dip makes sense with the addition of DE Matthew Judon’s pass-rush ability (at least until the final month of the season) and the lack of secondary depth forced Hightower into some different positions in coverage, but it just felt like Hightower had less of an overall impact in 2021. Hightower is still a leader of the linebacker core and that’s critically important, but you have to wonder whether this year was a small blip or a sign that things are beginning to decline a touch.

Prediction: The Pats move on from Hightower despite his history and leadership because they believe he is beginning to decline at soon-to-be 32 years old. Another team desperate for leadership on defense will snap him up and he’ll have one or maybe two more strong seasons in the NFL.

Honorable Mention: James White, RB

There couldn’t be a worse time for White to have a season-ending hip subluxation injury than in week 3 of a contract year. White is an important leader in the running back room and has been a strong pass catcher out of the backfield for the Patriots for years. He’s been a critical piece in multiple super bowls and definitely has earned the respect of fans and coaches. It’s a tough spot for White and the Pats given the injury, but Bill Belichick and the entire Patriots roster love and respect White and his leadership (sense a trend with this crop of free agents?).

Prediction: White comes back on a cheap deal to prove he’s healthy again and be a veteran leader for the young RB core. He’s only 29 and in a rotational backfield like New England, he’ll play a small but important role on 3rd down. He’ll also be able to step in when Damien Harris and/or Rhamondre Stevenson get injured, because both have a tendency to miss time with nagging injuries in their young careers.


Overall, this free agency class is filled with known veterans and secondary leaders. There are some exceptionally difficult decisions to be made, especially with 4 of their 5 captains from 2021 being free agents. Depending on the direction the franchise feels they are going, they could either continue to go all-in on this group of leaders for another year or two, or Belichick could decide that now is the time to move on and allow the next crop of leaders to step up. Despite last year’s free agent spending spree, this offseason might be even more interesting than last for the Pats.

Patriots Coming Back Down to Earth

After an understandably slow start, the Patriots went on an amazing run to put themselves in the driver’s seat to win the AFC East, sitting at 9-4. They convinced many that a deep playoff run was possible, but after dropping a stinker last week against the Colts, the Patriots got outplayed from start to finish on Sunday by the Buffalo Bills and now no longer control their own destiny in the AFC East. The Pats were beat in all aspects of the game on Sunday and now look like the team we expected: competitive, but don’t have enough talent for a deep run.

One of the most concerning aspects of this team from the offseason until now was their cornerback depth. After the expected, but ugly breakup with #1 CB Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots were left with an improving and impressive J.C. Jackson as their #1 and then a group of average or below players. They combination of Jalen Mills and Myles Bryant is frankly just not very good. The next on the depth chart, Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade, have barely seen the field as healthy scratches several weeks. The Pats elevated D’Angelo Ross from the practice squad yesterday instead of Wade and Williams, which is pretty telling. They are basically left with Jackson to cover the opponents #1 with no help and then a bunch of nothing to cover every other receiver. They have made it by with support from their safeties, but 1-on-1 coverage against even decent receivers is a struggle.

The Bills intelligently (you won’t hear me say that often) exploited the Pats biggest weakness and threw to Isaiah McKenzie what felt like 49 times. McKenzie had a total of 7 receptions on the season prior to Sunday, when he hauled in 11 receptions for 125 yards in a dominating performance. While he was impressive, the coverage was absolutely pathetic. While Jackson was busy covering Stephon Diggs, the rest of the secondary looked lost trying to cover the McKenzie and as a result, the Pats were forced to play a lot more zone to try and compensate. Josh Allen showed his improved awareness and was able to identify zone vs man seemingly a lot easier than in the past and was in turn able to exploit the matchup. The passing attack opened up running lanes, primarily for Allen if he didn’t see an open receiver (with some designed runs mixed in as well).

The game plan was the opposite of the Colts last weekend, because the teams are built in the opposite way. Last week, MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor did what he’s done to a lot of teams this year and just ran over the defense. Carson Wentz only attempted 12 passes (completing only 5) but that was enough with a superstar running back. The Bills are built as a pass-first team and that showed on Sunday. The Pats got beat in two dramatically different ways in the course of two weeks. Now opponents, if they didn’t already, have a clear blueprint to exploit the Pats defense.

Now let’s give the Bills credit where deserved. They came into the game wanting to be aggressive and with revenge on the mind. From the opening kickoff, they were playing at an extremely high level and took a lot of risky chances, almost all of which paid off. If they are aggressive and aren’t able to convert a few of their 4th and shorts, the makeup of this game could have been very different. It was clear that seeing the Pats a few weeks before helped them put together the perfect game plan to fool Mac and take advantage of the Pats secondary.

The Bills also caught a substantial break before half. With the Pats driving down 10, the refs magically picked up a clear unnecessary roughing penalty that would have put the Pats in field goal range. Mac Jones got pulled down from behind with two fistfuls of jersey, which in the modern NFL is as clear a penalty as possible and has been called that way all season (an for the last number of seasons). Apparently, refs now judge the intent of a hit out of bounds, rather than just following the rule, claiming there was no intent to harm and thus no penalty, which is ridiculous. It is clearly a penalty regardless of intent and the resulting meltdown led to no points for the Pats before half. David Andrews was called for a taunting penalty for yelling at a Bills player in the resulting play, which was just an exclamation point on another embarrassing episode for NFL refs. What should have been a first down on the edge of field goal range for the Pats, turned into being backed up to their own 32 yard-line and essentially ending their chance to swing momentum. Even worse, it gave the Bills all the momentum going into the locker room.

There is a lot to process with the last two games for the Pats, including offensive line struggles, Mac Jones looking like a rookie, and Jonnu Smith and N’Keal Harry still sucking (other than Harry’s blocking), but the embarrassment of the secondary doesn’t seem to be fixable and will likely be the achilles heal other teams will attempt to exploit. While a deep playoff run is likely out of the question now, the Pats will probably have to play on the road if they make the postseason. The good news? The Pats are 6-1 on the road in 2021.

Not All is Lost in 2-4 Start for the Patriots

On late Sunday afternoon the Dallas Cowboys came to town and the matchup was filled with big plays, interesting and quick momentun turns, and extra football. The Cowboys came into Foxborough at 4-1 with a high-powered offense that was averaging 34 pts per game and 40.3 in their past 3 contests, tied for the best in the NFL. The Pats defense had their hands full and they needed a lot from Mac Jones and the offense and they got a solid performance from the rookie. Ultimately, after overtime the Cowboys are flying home happy and the Patriots are sitting 2-games below .500, but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in New England.

One of my takeaways from Sunday was the Patriots run-defense and their ability to limit running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. In his last 3 games, Zeke was averaging 116 yards per game on just over 19 carries per game. On Sunday, the Pats held Zeke to 69 yards on 17 carries, just 4.1 yards per carry which is nearly 2 yards per carry below his average the last 3 games. The more limited run game forced a much larger pass game which was absolutely electric, but it’s nice to see the big front line for the Patriots limiting the run game.

The other main takeaway: Dak Prescott is at the top of his game and the Pats secondary is, well, not. Dak was able to put the ball in tight windows and make some huge throws on big 3rd and 4th downs to keep the Cowboys driving. He was able to read the defense and make the right decisions throughout the game, especially in crunch time in the 4th quarter and overtime. He finished the game with an incredible 445 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, the most passing yards against a Bill Belichick coached team. It was his 2nd 400+ yard passing game this season and his 5th game with a passer rating above 101. In 6 games, he now has over 1,800 passing yards, 16 TDs and 4 INTs. His 74% completion percentage coming into the game was 2nd best in the NFL amongst regular starters and that will stay high after this 70.5% performance against the Patriots.

While Dak was impressive, it does raise a glaring flag in the Pats secondary which is now officially without Stephen Gilmore going forward after his trade to the Carolina Panthers. Jalen Mills was beat repeatedly throughout the game, including badly on the game-winning TD to CeeDee Lamb, who had 149 yards on 9 catches on the day. The secondary is coming off a terrible performance against rookie David Mills and the Houston Texans where they allowed 312 yards, 3 TDs and couldn’t grab an interception and they didn’t look much better against the elite QB. Beyond Mills, JC Jackson didn’t have his best game and committed a really costly pass interference penalty in the end zone that led to a Dallas TD in the 2nd half. It was a rough day all around.

On top of that, the Pats offensive line has more holes than swiss cheese. Between injuries and COVID-list stints, they were more intact than last week, but still thin. They got T Isaiah Wynn back this week, but he allowed a few really bad pressures/sacks and was benched at one point and moved around on the line. They did an OK job in the run game, but were incompetent at times in pass protection allowing a few awful hits on Mac Jones, which is not how you want to take care of the face of your franchise. Jones blamed himself for not getting the ball out quickly on those plays, but he can’t be expected to have 1 second of protection on every pass play. In spite of the line, Mac had a solid game.

The good news for the Pats is that they get the 1-4 New York Jets coming off a bye week at home next week, before taking a tough trip out west to play the Chargers on the road. Following the Chargers, they have a string of winnable games against the Panthers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans. They have a real chance to finish that 6-game stretch 4-2, which would return them to .500 heading into 2 games against the powerful division leading Buffalo Bills in 3 weeks.

For now, it’s time to get back to work and improve before next Sunday. I’m not sure how the Pats fix the secondary and offensive line, but if they can tweak and improve a little each week, then the team can get back to winning on the regular. It’s not great right now, but there is a long way to go in this season.

An Appreciation for J.C. Jackson

When I heard that Stephon Gilmore would be out for at least the first 6 weeks of the 2021 season, I had some significant concerns for the New England Patriots secondary. The DB group is solid with Gilmore, but without their CB1 it forces everyone up the depth chart and seriously weakens the matchups across the field. I also questioned whether J.C. Jackson is a true #1 and would continue to be successful without having Gilmore on the other side of the field shutting down the opponent’s WR1. Now just 2 games into the season, my feelings are beginning to shift.

Let me preface by saying that I know the Patriots played the lowly New York Jets on Sunday so the stats will naturally be skewed, but I was still impressed by the play of J.C. Jackson. Looking back at his career, Jackson has 19 interceptions in just 47 games and of those 47 games, he technically only started 24 of them. It’s hard to argue against Jackson being one of the best undrafted rookie signings in recent memory with his ball-hawking nature.

Jackson had a monster year last season with 9 interceptions, but overall he has been near or at the top on the Patriots in interceptions and passes deflected over his 3+ seasons in the NFL. He has worked his way up the snap count every year, playing just 38% of the defensive snaps his rookie year in 2018, 68% in 2019, 84% in 2020, and 100% this year through 2 games. He has become an invaluable member of the secondary which seems to have had an impact on the Patriots’ negotiations with Stephon Gilmore.

“…The ninth pick of the season, I feel like I could have had more than that. But that’s a hell of a season, to have nine picks. I’ve just got to continue to grow and get better for the 2021 season.”

J.C. Jackson on his 2020 season

Looking beyond the Patriots and across the league, Jackson is leading the NFL with 2 interceptions in 2021 (through 2 games), finished 2nd in the NFL in interceptions in 2020 (1 behind Miami’s Xavien Howard) and tied for the 2nd most interceptions in 2019 with 5. He’s beginning to get some recognition across football as well, placing #49 in the NFL Network’s list of the Top 100 NFL Players this offseason, just 2 spots behind Stephon Gilmore (the only 2 Patriots players to appear on the list).

Although Jackson isn’t yet the same shutdown CB1 that Gilmore has become, he is proving to be a more than capable of holding his own as the leader of the CB group and he’s only 25 years old. He should continue to get better each year and has forced himself into a position where he is an incredibly important piece to lock-up on a longer-term contract. He will have a tough test in week 4, as will the entire Patriots defense, when they play Tom Brady and his gazillion top tier receivers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I feel like I’m not even at my highest level yet. I’ve still got some room to improve and have some things I need to work on.”

J.C. Jackson in January 2021

Jackson is currently on a 1-year, $3.38 million contract that felt a little like a prove-it deal for this season. So far, in just 2 games (have I said that enough yet?), Jackson is proving to Bill Belichick that he can continue to learn and become the CB1 of the present and future. If that continues, I’m hoping the Patriots ownership will think long and hard about a multi-year deal to keep Jackson with the Patriots as a protection plan for when the 31-year old Gilmore decides to move on (or is not resigned). If Jackson hits free agency this offseason after a strong year, the Pats will probably not be able to pay him what others teams might leaving them in huge trouble in the secondary.

With the likely retirement of Devin McCourty in the next year or two and the likely departure of Stephon Gilmore, the Pats need to be planning for the future in the secondary. They have the next-person-up already on the roster, the time is now to lock him up for the next several years.

Is this the end for Stephon Gilmore in a Pats uniform?

One of the biggest stories in training camp and the preseason for the New England Patriots was the status of CB Stephon Gilmore. He’s an elite defender and and critical piece in the secondary for the Pats, but has yet to step on the field this year and now won’t until at least week 7 because he’s on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. There has been some clear animosity and contract issues with Gilmore this offseason and it feels like the standoff between Bill Belichick and Gilmore will not end well for the Pats.

The 30-year old Gilmore’s 2020 season ended early after a quad injury that led to surgery and lots of offseason rehab. His actual health now remains somewhat of a question since no one has seen him on the field in months. Due to a contract dispute and seemingly a disagreement on a contract extension and contract value, he’s in the last year of his deal, Gilmore was a holdout and missed OTAs and minicamp earlier this year. He reported to Gillette Stadium in July to end the holdout, but was then placed on the PUP list, where he has remained since.

Gilmore is slated to make $7 million this season, after $13 million last year, based on the way his contract was structured when he signed the 5-yr $65 million deal in 2017 with the Pats. It seems that Gilmore assumed that if his performance was still high, they would renegotiate the last year of his deal (this year) and potentially talk about an extension, but it appears the Pats haven’t made a generous-enough offer to satisfy him (or any offer depending on who you believe). From the outside, it appears the relationship has eroded to the point of Bill Belichick trying to prove that he doesn’t need Gilmore to be successful.

The most frustrating piece to me is that Gilmore is a top-tier CB in the league and seems to just be asking to be paid a more reasonable salary. At $7 million, it puts his contract on par with Jonathan Jones as the 27th highest paid CB in the league (strictly by salary, not cap hit). Gilmore is definitely a top-10 CB, if not a top-5 or even top-3 talent and he knows that. Even as he approaches 31 this week, Gilmore is incredibly valuable on a short-term deal if healthy, which is the big question.

“I just want what I’m worth, however is plays out. Every player should be paid what they’re worth. That’s just how it is.”

Stephon Gilmore in July 2021

To me this just screams mismanagement from the Patriots ownership. With Gilmore healthy and back in the lineup, the Pats are a serious contender and can make a big playoff push. Without him, it’s yet to be seen, but it’s a significantly weaker secondary that may struggle against top passing games. It forces the Pats to rely more heavily on CBs like Jalen Mills and Joejuan Williams who are decent as your depth 4th or 5th corners, but get exposed as a 2nd or 3rd behind CB J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones. It also puts more pressure on SS Devin McCourty to help in coverage.

If Gilmore is really injured and there is a deal in place once he’s healthy for him to come back, then great, but as of now things seem to be trending toward a messy separation. I think we have already seen Gilmore’s last game in a Pats uniform, but boy do I hope I’m wrong.