By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- Of all the potential free agent situations the Patriots are facing over the next two years, the cornerback situation is arguably going to be the trickiest to navigate. Their two starting cornerbacks from last season and the start of the 2016 season, Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, are both set to become restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively, after 2016.
It's highly unlikely the Patriots will be able to sign both corners, and they may be preparing for the possibility that they lose both.
A source told NESN's Doug Kyed on Tuesday that the Patriots recently worked out five defensive backs. One of them was 22-year-old Mike Hilton, whom the team signed to the practice squad late Tuesday. Hilton signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a rookie free agent after the 2016 draft before being placed on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) list, removed, and ultimately waived on Aug. 29.
Also among the defensive backs worked out were cornerbacks JaCorey Shepherd and Kevin Short. Shepherd was a 2015 sixth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, who also sent 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe to the Patriots for a conditional draft pick on Tuesday. Short went undrafted in 2015 and has been signed and waived by the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Jets, who just released Short as part of their final roster cuts on Sept. 3. Safeties Trae Elson and Stefan McClure round out the DBs who reportedly worked out in Foxboro.
It's unknown if any of these cornerbacks, Rowe included, will be anything close to Butler - or even Ryan for that matter. Who knows if Shepherd or Short even sign with the team. Who knows if Hilton will ever make it off the practice squad.
Then again, who really knew what Butler would turn out to be when he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and barely played in his rookie season?
The point here is that the Patriots are gathering potential insurance policies should they have to lose one or both out of Butler and Ryan, and they appear far from dead-set on actually signing Butler to a long-term contract extension. There's no other reason they would be bringing in this many defensive backs with the secondary as stable and deep right now as it's been in several years.
If you spent your summer howling at the Gillette Stadium lighthouse, "Ya gotta keep Butlahhh!" ... then you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Butler could be relatively easy to keep around as a restricted free agent, but not so much if he becomes unrestricted. He is no sure thing to re-up with the Patriots long-term, especially if he seeks similar money to the highest paid cornerbacks in the league. The guaranteed money being thrown at the elites of the position could appear particularly obscene to the Krafts and Bill Belichick, if Butler asks for anything approaching the league-best totals. Josh Norman just set the market with $50 million guaranteed in his five-year, $75 million deal with the Redskins, while Darrelle Revis leads in base salary with a cool $16 million from the Jets. Even if Butler only wanted to enter 2017 as the seventh-highest-paid corner, the Patriots would have to top Patrick Peterson's $9.75 million salary in Arizona.
Are Belichick and the Krafts about to hand Butler a higher cap hit than almost everyone on the Patriots roster, possibly even Tom Brady?
The answer will lie in what the team has right now at the cornerback position beyond Butler and Ryan. There's 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones, who had a strong preseason and already looks like the third corner and possibly punt returner. There's also second-year player Justin Coleman, rookie Jonathan Jones out of Auburn, and the recently acquired Rowe, in addition to the unsigned players worked out.
If the Patriots end up letting Ryan go - and there's a very good chance of that happening, as he is a No. 2 corner who is destined to get paid like a No. 1 - there's a good chance that the next man up could be on the roster right now. If they let Butler go ... it may upset you or concern you, but it really shouldn't. It should actually inspire more confidence in the cornerback group.
Belichick proved this to you just last year, when he let All-Pro Revis go and cut his cornerbacks down to the point where Butler and Ryan were the starters. Both played at high levels in 2015, thus proving all the fear-mongers wrong and showing that Belichick is not afraid to let high-end talent walk out the door if he believes he can replace their on-field production with a more cost-effective option. If he can get 90 percent of Malcolm Butler out of, say, Jonathan Jones, at a fraction of a fraction of what Butler will pull in free agency, he's going to make that move.
There's also the chance that the Patriots end up (pardon the pun) cornered, forced to re-sign the more expensive yet clearly more talented player due to the lack of a realistic replacement. Vince Wilfork is a good example; the Patriots took the nose tackle to the wall in negotiations, only to have to keep him around with a long-term deal. As great as Wilfork was with the Patriots, the team didn't want to make him the highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history. They had to, because they knew the myriad other defensive tackles they signed or drafted during the 2009-10 league year - among them Ron Brace (Rest In Peace), Mike Wright, Kenny Smith, Steve Williams, Darryl Richard, Titus Adams, Adrian Grady, Terdell Sands, and Myron Pryor - weren't going to pan out and become the new Wilfork.
This is not to say the Patriots are definitely not planning on bringing Butler back. Maybe the Super Bowl XLIX hero will be content with a significantly cheaper contract than what he deserves. Maybe the Patriots end up with a Wilfork situation and feel compelled to keep Butler around. But if Belichick enters next offseason feeling confident that Cyrus Jones and Eric Rowe can lead the Patriots corners into 2017, then both Butler and Ryan could be good as gone.
That may sound crazy to you, but so did the idea of ditching Revis and Brandon Browner for Butler and Ryan. The Patriots may be looking to keep their starting corners, but it's about as far from a lock as you can get. If they can't keep Butler or Ryan, they at least appear to be preparing to have a contingency plan.
If and when "Plan B" kicks in next year, don't say I didn't warn you.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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