29-year-old Richard Sherman is falling off a cliff, and 38-year-old Terence Newman put together one of his best seasons in 2016.
Cornerback is easily, in my opinion, the most difficult position in the NFL. Only running backs can compare with the sudden drop-off in level of play due to age that happens to cornerbacks. And unlike running backs, a cornerback’s mistakes are put under a microscope. A bad cornerback can mean a bad defense.
So in the debate about whether or not it makes sense for the Saints to trade away an early-round pick for Malcolm Butler, it can be tough to cover ground. On the one hand, age is a tricky quantifier that is very difficult to navigate. On the other, it can be difficult to predict cornerback success in the NFL. A proven talent means a lot more than a potential talent. Just look at the history of first round CBs.
To be clear: Butler is still absolutely on the table for the Saints. Once he signs his tender (which he will), trade talks will begin. That doesn’t mean it will happen. Butler could be worth anything from a first-round pick to a third, in Payton and Belichick’s eyes. But don’t read too much into Kraft saying he hopes Butler stays with them. That’s lip service.
For what it’s worth, I support a trade for Bulter IF the price is right. And that IF isn’t as big as some might say. If the Saints do land Butler, I don’t expect it would cost them the world. Possibly not even the 32nd pick. Absolutely not the 11th (even before Payton shot down that talk, it was ridiculous).
But we need to break down the pros and cons of the trade. Starting with the go-to argument against. Turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than it seems.
Butler has a difficult contract negotiation coming up. Yes, he’s been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since emerging on the scene in 2015. But for a third-year player, he’s already 27. He likely only has one big contract left in him, and he might not even have that.
Consider Darrelle Revis (31) and Richard Sherman (29). Both were once the best players at their position. Revis is now looking for work and is considering a switch over to safety to hide his loss of speed. Sherman, only two years older than Butler, may find himself in a similar position next year. Possibly sooner. The Seahawks want to trade him and many have reported that, if they fail to do so, they may cut him.
Cornerbacks fall off a cliff very suddenly. For a position so dependent on elite speed and agility, even the slightest loss of step can mean the end of a career. It can be hard to predict when that loss will take place.
On the other side of the aisle, we have Terence Newman. Newman is 38 years old, yet he finished as PFFs 4th best cornerback of 2016. And while 38 is a bit of an anomaly, it’s not altogether uncommon for a cornerback to play well in his early 30’s. PFF’s highest ranked CB, for example, was Aqib Talib. Talib is 31.
Butler turned 27 in March. A four-year contract extension would lock him up until 31. I don’t see much chance that Butler signs for anything less than four years. And if the Saints choose to wait until the end of his current contract to sign him, Butler would be 32 by the contract’s end.
The main argument for Butler is that he’s a proven talent. And this argument comes with drawbacks of its own.
For example, while Butler may be a proven talent, he has also likely reached a ceiling of sorts. From UDFA to elite CB, Butler has reached his potential. And some—not me—would argue that that potential doesn’t reach high enough.
Let’s compare him to some of the league’s most recent first-round picks. And I should note that the Saints may be able to pull Butler away with a second-round pick.
On the one hand, we have elite athletes like Jalen Ramsey and Vernon Hargreaves in 2016, elite shutdown CBs like Marcus Peters and Kevin Johnson in 2015, Kyle Fuller in 2014 and Trufant and Rhodes in 2013.
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Butler belongs in the conversation with many of these guys. Ramsey may emerge as the best of the bunch, if he can live up to his potential. And Peters is arguably the best cornerback in the league right now. But Butler is on par with guys like Johnson, Fuller and Rhodes. Easily. And these were all first-round picks.
And then you have the flip side of the coin. Trae Waynes. Justin Gilbert. Dee Milliner. D.J. Hayden. These were all early first-round picks, and nearly all are set to be out of the league in the coming years. Besides quarterbacks, cornerbacks turn out easily the highest percentages of first-round busts. It’s just so hard to predict who will have the football IQ and instincts to play at the next level. Some do, some don’t.
Conclusion for the New Orleans Saints
Obviously, it comes down to value. The Saints won’t trade the 11th pick, and I don’t think they’ll trade the 32nd. Butler is due for a big contract that most teams would rightly be reluctant to give him. Someone will, of course, and that’s why the situation is so tricky.
The question is whether or not you think Butler will still be elite in his early 30’s. If that answer is yes, then Butler is easily worth a 2nd round pick. But if that answer is no, the Saints would be better off rolling the dice on a younger prospect. They come cheaper, after all. But considering how close the Saints are to contention, a guaranteed talent like Butler could mean the difference between a deep playoff run and another losing season.
I’d go with Butler.