Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore giving Bill Belichick exactly what he wants at cornerback
FOXBORO — Bill Belichick’s vision is becoming a reality with his starting pair of cornerbacks.
Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore bring an impressive level of physicality to the defensive perimeter, and have displayed a handful of promising examples during the opening week of training camp.
Gilmore’s tenacity made headlines Tuesday when he tangled with wide receiver Julian Edelman on an incompletion in the end zone, shoved him and engaged in a wrestling match that led to their ejection from practice. He won’t shy away from any challenge.
“It’s pretty much with anybody,” Gilmore said. “I’m not going to back down. I’m going to give you what I know I can do, and we’ll see who wins at the end of the day.”
More important than any skirmish with a teammate, Gilmore has been a consistent issue for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ talented cast of wide receivers. Gilmore shielded Brandin Cooks from deep balls and had some good battles with former Bills teammate Chris Hogan on top of the tough one-on-ones with Edelman.
There was actually a stretch over the first two practices of camp when Brady completed 25-of-28 passes, the only three incompletions with Gilmore in coverage. Gilmore’s physicality has been an obvious asset.
“I like to get up on guys, put my hands on them and be physical with them and knock their timing off their routes,” Gilmore said. “That’s one thing I pride myself on.”
Gilmore, who looks bigger than his listed 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame, is expected to get his hands on receivers. But Butler, at 5-11, 190, wasn’t blessed with imposing size. It’s an attitude for Butler. By the end of a game, he wants receivers to remember who they lined up against.
“First of all, you know I’m not the biggest guy,” Butler said. “But big or small, I think I would’ve been this way either way it went. You want to be well-rounded as a corner. You want to know how to cover, tackle, catch the ball, read plays, do it all to be a complete player. I’m just built that way. I was built to be aggressive and physical.
“I think it’s your mental focus and what type of person you are. Are you a dog or are you a roach?”
Butler has been the best defensive player in training camp. Two days ago, he had a stretch in which he was all over Cooks to prevent a completion in one-on-ones, then initiated contact with Edelman to break up his first of two Brady passes in team drills.
This is what Belichick envisioned this offseason when he wooed Gilmore with a five-year, $65 million contract. Sure, it miffed Butler, who is still hoping to land an extension with the Patriots before he is scheduled to become a free agent in March. But Belichick was never close to trading Butler, regardless of how much the Saints wanted him.
That’s because Butler and Gilmore could forge the best cornerback tandem in the NFL this season. If nothing else, the pair will make life miserable on opposing offenses with their brand of play. They’ve got the same mentality as the bigger guys like Dont’a Hightower and Alan Branch in the front seven.
“It really helps, but here, it’s expected,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Going back to last year with Malcolm and (Logan Ryan), Log was a very physical guy. Steph is the same way. You see it in practice with his press technique and different drills. I think that gives everyone trust that if a running back breaks to the edge, our corners will come up and make a tackle just like anybody else on the team. That’s how you try to have a good defense.”
Butler and Gilmore can match up and press any receivers because of their inclination to stick their nose in the dirt. That will in turn help the cornucopia of blitz packages Belichick is planning to unveil.
The Butler-Gilmore pairing figures to be a throwback to the first leg of the Patriots’ dynasty. They could play an integral role to a second offering of three Super Bowls in four years if the whole operation truly comes together.
“I’m glad to have him,” Butler said. “He brings the best out of me, and I hope I bring the best out of him.”