FOXBOROUGH — It’s hard out here for a defensive back.
There aren’t a lot of reps to go around with the likes of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the fold, with up-and-comers like Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan back for another year, and with seasoned veteran Kyle Arrington still manning the slot.
Yet, an unheralded, undrafted cornerback out of Division II West Alabama has been making plays on a regular basis. Malcolm Butler has come out of nowhere to insert himself as a dark horse in the race for roster spots.
Pardon the “come out of nowhere” cliché, but in a league full of SEC standouts and ACC record-holders, a player from the Gulf South Conference is obviously facing an uphill climb.
“It just made me have a chip on my shoulder,” he said after practice on Tuesday. “I know guys were getting looks before me and things like that, but you know, it turned out well, so I have no reason to complain about that. It’s been a tough journey, coming from Division II, you know. They don’t get too much publicity, but I’m just glad I’m here now.”
Butler hasn’t let his D-II status stand in the way, and he’s taking full advantage of his opportunities. He notched an interception in each of the first two practices of training camp, and has continually been in the right place to prevent a completion when in coverage.
He stood out in the Patriots’ first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, notching a pair of pass defenses on fade routes in the end zone and nearly intercepted the first two passes thrown into his coverage.
On Monday, he made a nice play to intercept a pass from quarterback Tom Brady. Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins ran a route toward the left sideline with Butler trailing him in coverage. Butler knocked the ball up in the air, then clutched the pass with both hands and pulled it into his body as he tapped his toes in-bounds for the pick.
“It was an honor to pick off one of the greatest quarterbacks in Tom Brady,” he said, “but just doing anything to make the team better, that’s all that matters.”
One thing he can do to make the team better? Provide sticky man coverage. The Patriots will probably be asking their defensive backs to man up on opposing receivers a lot this year; Revis and Browner both thrive in man coverage.
Thus far in training camp, Butler has been equal to the task. He seems to be at his best when covering receivers downfield, breaking up long passes and coming down with interceptions.
Butler has played so well that he has been spotted lining up opposite Revis in team drills from time to time.
“Revis, he just be like, ‘Man, just play ball, man. You’ve been doing this for a long time, just correct the mental problems,'” Butler said. “I watch him and everything he does, so I’m just being a pup right now. Just doing what I can do and trying to learn more.”
If Butler continues to play at this level, it will be hard to keep him off the roster. If he isn’t able to make the final cut, he has an idea of what he might do instead.
“I would be a coach or a barber, or mentor kids to help them on things,” he said of his plan if he hadn’t been signed by a team. “The rough ones, you know, help them get on track and things like that. Something like a counselor or a mentor, adviser, or something like that.”
The Patriots must trim their roster to 75 players by 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time on August 26, and then down to 53 players by 12:00 p.m. ET on August 31.
Revis and Browner are locks for the roster; add Ryan, Dennard, and Arrington to those two, and the Patriots are already at five cornerbacks. That being said, the deck may already be stacked in Butler’s favor. Browner will not count against the roster until he returns from his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.