New England Patriots

It’s been over four years since cornerback Malcolm Butler played for the New England Patriots. His last game in a Patriots uniform was Super Bowl LII, where he mysteriously played zero defensive snaps and one special teams snap.

He’s now back with New England after playing for the Tennessee Titans from 2018-2021, then retiring for personal reasons last season. Butler signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Patriots this offseason. Speaking to reporters in person for the first time in 2022, the former second team All-Pro was the first to admit that the year away from the gridiron made an impact.

“I see what a year takes off, it gets you,” Butler said. “You got to put a lot of hard work back in to get back to where you were.”

When head coach Bill Belichick was asked about Butler’s return, he saw no difference in the way Butler approaches practices.

“Malcolm works hard, like he always has, very competitive, out there scrapping for balls,” Belichick said. “His aggressiveness, play style — we’re not in pads, but yeah, looks like it’s about the same.”

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 22: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots reacts as he warms up before a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

FOXBORO, MA – OCTOBER 22: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots reacts as he warms up before a game against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

In his final season with the Titans, Butler tied for his career-high in interceptions with four. He was released in the 2021 off-season, due to Tennessee’s lack of salary cap space. Butler would’ve made $14.2 million in the 2021 season.

The cornerback room changed since Butler was last with New England in 2017, where he was playing alongside All-Pro Stephon Gilmore, with Jonathan Jones and Eric Rowe behind them. Jonathan Jones remains, but Gilmore is long gone and another Patriots All-Pro corner in J.C Jackson signed a five-year, $82 million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason.

For the first time since 2016, New England is without both Gilmore and Jackson. The Patriots’ top corner that year? Butler. He snatched four interceptions that season, and also logged a career-high 17 pass breakups.

But that was over six years ago. Butler was 25 that season and heads into this one at 32 years old. Along with Jones, Butler has Jalen Mills and several young, unproven players to try and help him contain opposing passing games this season.

“I’m back in football shape, but I got more work to do,” Butler said.

As 32-year-old coming off a year of retirement, the question of how much work he can do is relevant. In the past two years, there’s seven cornerbacks aged 32 or older that played any amount of football. That number shrinks to five for 32-year-olds that played more than 10 games.

Training camp doesn’t start until late July, which gives Belichick and his staff plenty of time to figure out what they’ll do with an aging Butler and the rest of the cornerback group.

PHOTOS: Mac Jones, Patriots get to work for 2022 OTAs in Foxboro

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Patriots OTA Notebook Day 2: Working on the fundamentals

  • As Bill Belichick likes to remind people this time of year, OTAs and Minicamp are ‘teaching periods.’ The purpose of the offseason workouts isn’t to decide the roster, but prepare players for training camp and the season ahead.

    Tuesday’s practice – which was the team’s fourth overall and second open to the media – proved to be another opportunity for the coaching staff to do just that. The first half of the session consisted of mostly conditioning, followed by positional drills the rest of the afternoon. There was no 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 sessions, as the offense and defense stayed separate throughout the day.

    So, what is there to take away from that kind of practice? Here’s a few observations…

  • Bill Belichick remains involved in the offense

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches players practice at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches players practice at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    As was the case last week (you can find that practice notebook here), Belichick spent most of the practice with the offense. He wasn’t just overseeing things either, but appeared to have a hands-on role. That was especially true with the wide receivers, as he coached them through a release drill at one point.

    Joe Judge and Matt Patricia were also heavily involved on the offensive side of the ball once again. Joe Judge continues to work with the quarterbacks, while Patricia is spending most of his time with the offensive line.

    There are still no (public) official titles for the Patriots’ offensive coaching staff. However, through two practices it looks like Belichick, Judge, and Patricia will all play key roles.

  • Offensive line alignment

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Justin Herron (75) in action against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 29, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Justin Herron (75) in action against the New York Giants during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

    OTA practices are optional, which means when players don’t show up we get looks at alternate alignments that offer a better view of how the team views its depth. That’s been true on the offensive line so far this spring. Isaiah Wynn hasn’t practiced yet, and Trent Brown was not spotted on Tuesday after being at last week’s session.

    Those absences have offered more opportunities for the Patriots’ depth tackles. Justin Herron has seen the most increased reps through two practices, and Yodny Cajuste got more involved on Tuesday as well.

    Given the injury histories of Wynn and Brown, who project to be the team’s starters this year, tackle depth is key for the Patriots. Getting these guys these extra reps now may end up being valuable down the road.

  • Attendance

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Aug 12, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Matt Judon (9) at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

    Wynn and Brown were two of 11 players who weren’t spotted at Tuesday’s practice. The others not in attendance were running back James White, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, offensive linemen Chasen Hines and Andrew Stueber, defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Byron Cowart, linebackers Matthew Judon and Anfernee Jennings, and kicker Quinn Nordin. Harry, Hines, Stueber, Cowart, Judon, and Nordin all didn’t participate in the first practice either.

    Meanwhile, a couple of players were present at the start of practice, but then limited the rest of the day. They were tight end Dalton Keene, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and DeMarcus Mitchell, and safeties Jabrill Peppers and Brenden Schooler.

  • Rookie involvement

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Brailey Zappe throws the ball at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Brailey Zappe throws the ball at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    For last week’s media practice, the majority of the Patriots’ rookies spent most of the day on the sideline. On Tuesday, the group as a whole appeared to be more involved on a drill-to-drill basis. Perhaps this was in part facilitated by the tempo of the practice, but it shows how the team is ramping up its first-year players.

    One rookie who did stand out was quarterback Bailey Zappe. It’s not like the quarterbacks can throw line drive passes at quarter or half speed, and the fourth-round pick displayed impressive zip on the ball.

  • Tyquan Thornton addresses frame questions

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) works with training aids at the team's OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    May 23, 2022; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Tyquan Thornton (51) works with training aids at the team’s OTA at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

    Since the Patriots drafted him in the second round, a lot has been made about wide receiver Tyquan Thornton‘s build. At the Combine, he measured in at 6-foot-3, 181 pounds.

    There’s been a lot of discussion since that pick about Thornton needing to add size to his frame to make sure he can sustain an NFL career. He was asked about that after Tuesday’s practice, speaking to the media for the first time since the draft.

    “I wouldn’t necessarily say getting bigger, I’d just say getting stronger,” Thornton said of his approach. “Putting the speed with having strength.”

    “It’s a process. Coming in every day just trying to work and get better. Making strides each and every day,” he continued. “This is my body type. This is my frame. I don’t see myself getting to 225 pounds. Been thin all my life. Just getting stronger in the weight room, building more muscle so I can have that fast twitch.” Thornton added there is not specific goal weight for him at this time.

  • Malcolm Butler feeling familiar back in New England

    FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 16: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBORO, MA – JANUARY 16: Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on January 16, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    “It’s feels like yesterday,” Malcolm Butler told reporters to being his media availability on Tuesday – his first since re-singing with the Patriots in March. The 32-year-old cornerback noted it doesn’t feel as though much has changed from a day-to-day operation point of view since his last season in New England in 2017.

    “Different players. Players that used to play coaching now,” he noted when asked if anything has stood out as being different. “But one thing [that] never left is their hard work. So ain’t too much changed on my end.”

    Butler said the same of the Patriots’ defensive scheme. Although there’s been some speculation the team may switch to a zone-based look this year, Butler told reporters that it’s “kind of the same.”

    “Got a little tweak to it. Nothing I can’t handle,” he added. “So I’m just here to work. Execute my job, do my job.”

    Even when it comes to Belichick, Butler says things are the way he remembered. “Ain’t nothing changed but his age,” Butler said with a chuckle.

    Of course, there is one significant big-picture change to the team since Butler’s last time here, and that’s under center. What does he think of the team’s new quarterback?

    “I like Mac. I was at home watching him. He’s got great energy on and off the field. I like him,” Butler said. “His confidence, his swagger, I love that about him.”

  • What’s next?

    The Patriots will hold two more OTA practices this week, over the next two days. Both of those sessions are closed to the media. Then the team is off until June 7, when they begin the three-day Mandatory Minicamp. All three of those sessions will be open to the media.