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Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler keys the rise of the defense

December 30, 2016 GMT

FOXBORO — Malcolm Butler actually called his shot last week.

The only problem? He somehow underestimated himself.

In a Gillette Stadium meeting room, Butler told his fellow defensive backs that he was going to get a pair of interceptions in the Patriots’ Christmas Eve game against the Jets. He did just that, to give him a career-high four picks this season, and he added a fumble recovery for good measure.

It was the latest in a string of strong performances for the impending free agent, and Butler’s surge has mirrored the defense’s rise as a whole. Though he has had some historic moments and impressive stretches in the past, this might be the best he has ever played.

“You could possibly say that,” Butler nodded. “Just trying to keep making plays, do whatever to help the team and steadily build off the momentum.”

Over the past four weeks, quarterbacks targeting Butler are 6-for-15 (40 percent) for 126 yards, three interceptions and a 30.8 passer rating, and Butler has three pass breakups. Those numbers are even more impressive when looking closer, as Butler allowed a 66-yarder to Rams wideout Kenny Britt during garbage time and surrendered a 21-yarder to Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders with the outcome in hand. Take away those two connections, and Butler allowed an average of less than 10 yards per game in competitive coverage situations.

Butler has had a solid season, allowing two or fewer completions in eight of his 15 games, including the last three. He also leads the team with four picks and 14 pass breakups.

“Malcolm is an exceptional football player,” safety Duron Harmon said. “We all see it week in and week out. He plays man-to-man probably as good as anyone in the NFL. When he plays at a high level, it elevates everybody else. It elevates the defense. It makes the job for the safeties a lot easier when you know Malcolm is basically canceling that one guy over there.”

Butler will become a restricted free agent if the two sides don’t reach a contract extension. Surely, it’d make plenty of sense for the Patriots to hit Butler with a first-round tender, estimated at about $4 million for the 2017 season, and invite another team to negotiate a below-market deal that the Pats would then match.

But since the Pats are staring at $61 million in salary-cap space in 2017, which is the second most in the league, they could opt for the more aggressive approach without fearing any financial repercussions. It’d also eliminate the chance of a competitor bowling over Butler with a massive offer sheet. The Steelers, for instance, could upgrade their cornerbacks, will own a low first-round pick, have $37 million in projected cap space and may seek a dose of revenge after the Pats tried to pry away Emmanuel Sanders in 2013.

Butler steered clear of discussing his contract status, merely stating his play takes precedence. His performance will warrant a lucrative deal, and there’s no longer any denying Butler’s sustainability with the defense after his career essentially launched with a Super Bowl interception that may never be topped, by himself or anyone else.

Butler’s numbers are better across the board this season. Last year, he allowed 50 completions on 94 targets (53.2 percent) for 822 yards (51.4 per game), seven touchdowns and two interceptions for a 98.2 passer rating. He was flagged seven times. Through 15 games in 2016, quarterbacks are 46-of-89 (51.7 percent) for 692 yards (46.1 per game), four scores and four picks for a 73.8 rating. Butler matched last season’s total with 14 pass breakups and has been flagged just three times in coverage.

Considering Butler will turn 27 in March, his progression should have been expected.

“I’m still learning every day, still learning from mistakes,” he said. “The mistakes help you. You’re going to have some good ones. You’re going to have some bad ones. But most of all, you want to stay consistent and try to play the best way you can.”

Last week, Butler was anxious to make up for a difficult performance against the Jets in Week 12 when he allowed two touchdowns and seven completions without an incompletion for the first time in his career. This week, it’s more of the same, as he gets another crack at Dolphins wideout Jarvis Landry, who in Week 2 joined Steelers receiver Antonio Brown as the only players to beat Butler for 100 yards in a game.

It’d be a nice time for Butler to continue his dominant stretch, especially with the playoffs on the horizon, as well as a Brinks truck shortly thereafter. But he’ll continue to compartmentalize because short-term success breeds long-term gains, unless he’s got another shot to call.

“Just sticking to the grind, working hard no matter the situation,” Butler said. “Just going out there and trying to execute the game plan.”