Sunday 7: Could Malcolm Butler be a surprise Patriots’ cut?

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1—Returning from a one-year retirement and after a four-year hiatus from New England, veteran cornerback Malcolm Butler was in the starting lineup for the Patriots’ preseason opener Thursday night at Gillette Stadium. Butler went on to play 23 snaps of exhibition action against the Giants, as did veteran free agent New England newcomer Terrance Mitchell.

From afar that might seem like a good thing for Butler as he works back into NFL shape and looks to secure a job, maybe even one in the starting lineup, for the team where he began his NFL career as an undrafted rookie out of West Alabama back in 2014.

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Or maybe not so much. Bill Belichick’s team used primarily backup and unproven players in the opener against New York, with most presumed starters, veterans and top-line talents sitting out the action.

“Obviously got to look at a lot of people that haven't played a lot for us, and so whatever their individual situation was, that was really the common theme with all those players,” Belichick said after that game.

Is that the case with Butler? Did Belichick need to get a “look” at what the former two-time Pro Bowler may have left in the tank at the age of 32 after being away from the game for a year? Could he still be in line for a roster spot and maybe even a key job in the defensive backfield where it seems Jalen Mills is the only cornerback whose role is solidified?

Or, might Butler’s playing time in the season opener with all the other players with plenty to prove be a sign that his standing in New England may not exactly be on solid footing?

For what it’s worth, Butler got a $500,000 signing bonus and would carry a dead cap charge of $750,000 if cut, which isn’t nothing but also isn’t necessarily prohibitive.

Every summer virtually almost every NFL team makes a move to cut its roster down to 53 players that surprises fans and media alike. Could the former Super Bowl hero Butler be a potential surprise cut for Belichick’s Patriots this summer?

Thursday night’s preseason action has to at least open the door to that possibility.

2 – Another New England defensive back who opened some eyes in the preseason opener was third-year veteran Myles Bryant. But it wasn’t for anything he did on defense. Rather, Bryant impressed as a punt returner, showing decisive cuts and quick bursts on returns of 30 and 16 yards.

What made the returns more impressive was that not only has Bryant not returned punts before in NFL action, he admitted after the game that he’s not filled out the role since he was in high school.

“2015? My senior year of high school. My last game of high school,” Bryant said of his last punt return prior to his impressive work against the Giants, going on to note that having the ball in your hands is like riding a bike. “Growing up I was a running back. In Pop Warner, that’s what I did, all the way growing up. I feel like it just sticks with you, just having the ball, it’s kind of a second nature.”

With former All-Pro punt returner Gunner Olszewski having moved on to Pittsburgh as a free agent, New England has an opening for that role and it appears Bryant along with rookie Marcus Jones and veteran Ty Montgomery could be in the mix.

“He's shown a good ability to track and catch the ball. We know Myles has good quickness and he is a good decision maker, which is a lot in that position and made a couple of nice plays [Thursday] night, so he's worked hard for that opportunity, earned it and then did something with it,” Belichick said. “So, all really encouraging things, but I mean, that's kind of typical of Myles. That's kind of the way he is and the kid he is. He's a very diligent, hard-working kid that always gives you his best efforts, a smart instinctive football player and he's had a lot of different roles for us defensively and again, grown into those.”

3 – Much has been made of the fact that Matt Patricia and Joe Judge split the play-calling duties in the preseason opener. Patricia called the plays for the first two series of the game when Brian Hoyer was at quarterback, while Judge took over the duties for the rest of the way with rookie passer Bailey Zappe under center. It was a curious tactic given that neither guy has any real experience doing the job and whichever guy is going to take the offensive reins during the regular season could probably use all the reps he can get to prepare.

But two central figures in the offense expressed indifference to the strange “process.”

“I just listened to my helmet and called the play that's said to me, so whether it's Matt or Joe or whoever it might be, I'm not concerned about – I'm worried about what defense they're running, how we're going to execute the play,” the longtime veteran backup Hoyer said.

“To be quite honest with you, it really doesn't matter to me. I'm more focused on the play that's coming in, focused on communicating to my teammates what the play is, and then going forward looking at what the defense is giving us, and that's my main focus,” Zapped said.

4 – James White’s decision to retire this summer as he tried to work back from a hip injury didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. But it certainly still leaves a huge hole in New England, both on the field and in the locker room. On the field, the Patriots are losing arguably the best third-down/pass-catching back the team has ever had in the former Super Bowl hero who caught a career-best 87 passes in 2018 and had at least 40 receptions each season from 2015-2020.

But White’s attitude, leadership and off-field contributions may actually be missed even more. A respected captain and worker, White’s soft-spoken leadership was as unique as it was impactful. Many Patriots began their postgame press conferences following the preseason opener against the Giants with their thoughts on White announcing his retirement via social media earlier that afternoon.

“I think he left a tremendous, tremendous legacy here, not just for what he did on the field,” Matthew Slater said. “When I think about all the things that we hope to embody here, all the things that I hope to embody as a dad, as a husband, as a teammate, as a friend, James embodies all of that. So it's tough to say goodbye to someone like that. We're not saying goodbye, but as he transitions into the next phase of his life I certainly want to one of the first people to celebrate the legacy James White left here. He's a true Patriot, but he's a better human being and we're all better for having been around him.”

5 – While there was intense focus on the Patriots’ offensive play-calling on Thursday night, it was almost equally as notable who was calling offensive plays for the Giants, or rather who was not. First-year New York head coach Brian Daboll has risen through the ranks as an offensive assistant with experience calling plays at most of his career stops, most recently leading Josh Allen’s development in Buffalo. But for now, unlike so many other offensive-minded head coaches across the league, Daboll is apparently leaving the play-calling to offensive coordinator Mike Kafka.

“I tell you when it was strange was before the game and the night before,” Daboll said of not calling plays. “You're going through so many things in your head and thinking about situations. Whether it's the preseason, regular season, or the playoff game, whatever it may be. You know, it's a tough job to call plays, and you have to really put a lot of time and effort and energy into it, and Mike has done a good job with it. Again, it's his first game. Certainly there's no game-planning going on, but, again, the operation of calling it, getting it in quick to the quarterback, giving little reminders. I thought he did a good job.”

That’s an interesting perspective on a “tough job” given what’s going on with the Patriots in that area this summer.

6 – Rookie second-round receiver Tyquan Thornton got a lot of love for his preseason debut against the Giants, the speedster impressing more than his two catches for 9 yards and a touchdown would indicate. But another young receiver made even more plays, as second-year target Tre Nixon had four catches for 81 yards. Coming off an impressive spring, the former seventh-round pick and practice squader showed a productive rapport with Zappe on a couple back-shoulder throws on the first drive of the second half that notched 36 and 32 yards.

After dealing with injuries last summer, Nixon took advantage of his first game action since the close of his career at Central Florida. But as he tries to claw his way into the wide receiver conversation and special teams competition, he was just as focused on the plays he didn’t make against the Giants.

“Just need to keep improving,” Nixon said. “Need to limit the drops, be better on blocking, help out on special teams until I can get where I really want to be to help this team win.

“I believe just playing at a high pace, attacking, being aggressive. Like I said, the drops didn’t help obviously – one of them was on third-down, so did not help us stay on the field. I feel like this is what training camp is, what a preseason game is. Trial and error, just getting better every day and continuing to improve.”

7 – Moving toward the second preseason game of the summer this coming Friday night against the Panthers at Gillette Stadium, New England will hold a pair of joint practices with Carolina this Tuesday and Wednesday in Foxborough. Joint practices have become a norm in modern NFL summers, including for Belichick’s Patriots. Oftentimes for New England, though, the workouts are with a team that Belichick has a connection with in terms of the head coach or football staff. Patricia’s Lions, Judge’s Giants, Mike Vrabel’s Titans and others have all served as joint practice partners in recent years, as will Josh McDaniels’ Raiders later this month.

But Belichick doesn’t have that type of pre-existing relationship with Matt Rhule’s Panthers, nor did he last summer with Nick Sirianni’s Eagles. Belichick explained that both familiar and unfamiliar partners can bring value to joint practice sessions.

“Certainly it's a little bit easier working with somebody that we've worked with. So those are pretty clean, cause we're pretty much doing the same thing. So it's easy to mesh together,” Belichick said. “When you work with a team that you're not as familiar with, it's important to be on the same page with the other head coach and their organization on what they're looking for and what they're trying to do. So, I feel real comfortable working with Matt.

“The good side of working with coaches that you know or you've worked with, is the scheduling and things like that. But a lot of times their style of play has some similarities to ours. In this case, that in Philadelphia was another example where that really wasn't the case. Those teams will do things quite a bit differently than we do and so we'll see different matchups, different schemes and things like that. So, I think there's benefit to both.”