METAIRIE, La. — Malcolm Butler appears to be in play again for the New Orleans Saints after signing his restricted free agent tender with the New England Patriots on Tuesday — which makes him eligible to be traded.
The Saints should go and get him.
Of course I know all the sensible reasons why they shouldn’t overpay for Butler — who will probably cost the No. 32 pick in next week’s NFL draft (or the No. 42 pick, at the very least), as well as a lucrative long-term contract.
I’ve covered the Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner and C.J. Spiller misses in free agency, among many other examples throughout the NFL over the years. I appreciate the wisdom that it’s better to build a long-term foundation through the draft than to overpay for another team’s expendable player through a trade or free agency.
But I believe even more strongly in the “try to win while Drew Brees is still thriving” theory.
The Saints can load up on draft picks and salary-cap space when Brees is gone — which unfortunately will be too soon, since he is 38 years old. Brees is the only Hall of Fame quarterback the Saints have had in their 50-year existence. There’s no guarantee they’ll find another one in the next 50, much less the next five.
Going “all in” to win with a guy like Brees doesn’t mean you’re making the safe play. Brees changes the rules — just like New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis changes the rules. It’s no coincidence that the same decision-makers, led by Saints/Pelicans owner Tom Benson and executive vice president Mickey Loomis, decided to make a similar move with the DeMarcus Cousins trade earlier this year.
No, the acquiring veterans theory hasn’t worked out in the past three years, starting with the move to sign Byrd to a mega-deal in 2014, which has amounted to three straight 7-9 seasons. But that doesn’t mean it can’t work if the Saints choose the right pieces. Look at the New York Giants, who bought half of their defense in free agency last year and rode that defense to the playoffs.
Better yet, look at the division rival Atlanta Falcons. They provide the perfect blueprint for the Saints by having one of the NFL’s most dominant offenses and riding a few key defensive additions in recent years to Super Bowl LI.
The real question is whether Butler is worth the risk.
That’s not a definite yes — but it’s at least a “probably.” It’s too bad Butler is 27 years old instead of 23 — like receiver Brandin Cooks, whom the Saints just traded to New England to acquire that No. 32 pick in the first place.
But Butler is still young in NFL years, with just three seasons of experience under his belt. And they are three awfully-impressive seasons for the former undrafted rookie out of West Alabama, who went from his star turn in Super Bowl XLIX after the 2014 season to the Pro Bowl in 2015 to a second-team All-Pro selection in 2016.
The biggest knock on Butler is that he isn’t an ideal 1-on-1 matchup against some of the bigger receivers that dominate the NFC South — such as Julio Jones and Mike Evans — at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. That’s one of the reasons why New England decided to spend $13 million per year on bigger free agent Stephon Gilmore this offseason — which opened the door for Butler to possibly be traded.
But the Saints have a bigger, more physical corner in Delvin Breaux. And if the Saints could add safety help behind Breaux while Butler locks down a No. 2 receiver — well, this defense that has struggled so often in recent years will suddenly look a whole lot better.
ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen told me last month that he believes Butler is a top-10 NFL cornerback.
“I love Butler’s tape … would love to coach him,” Bowen said, among other compliments. “Butler is a great example of why technique and football IQ win over raw talent of measurables.”
The biggest criticism I would have against the Saints if they make a Butler deal is that they could have gone after free-agent cornerbacks that wouldn’t have required trade compensation, like Gilmore or the Jacksonville Jaguars’ A.J. Bouye.
But perhaps the Saints have an even higher grade on Butler. And perhaps the reason why they didn’t make a move for another corner is because they anticipated this trade happening all along — dating back to when they first discussed the idea of swapping Cooks for Butler straight up.
And the Saints don’t have much time to play with.