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The NFL CBA on Malcolm Butler, First-Round Tender, and Potential Trade to Saints

What are the rules governing this entire mess?

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I know the Patriots assigned a first round tender on Malcolm Butler, could they revoke that first-round tender? If so, what happens?

The Patriots can withdraw the first-round tender designation any time before June 15th, immediately making Butler a free agent. Because this would mean the Patriots would not receive any form of compensation if they do not retain Butler for 2017, they are highly unlikely to take this action.

He is visiting with the Saints this week, though. So what happens if the Saints try to sign him?

So here’s the process: the Saints can meet with Malcolm Butler and agree to terms of a contract. The “principal terms” (salary, duration, etc) is then submitted to the team that offered the original tender (the Patriots). The Patriots then have the Right of First Refusal. That means if the Patriots are willing to pay Butler at the same rate and duration as the terms of the contract offered by the Saints, the Patriots can choose to match that contract and Butler stays with the Patriots.

Then again, the Patriots could refuse to match the contract and receive a first round pick from the Saints as compensation for losing Butler.

So if the Patriots refuse to match a contract from the Saints, could the Saints give up a first round pick, but their first round pick in 2018 instead of 2017?

Unfortunately, generally, no. The rule is that the pick forfeited in this procedure is in the draft that same year.

Technically, instead of giving up a first round pick this year, there could be a way to give up a 2018 first round pick instead. If Butler has still refused to sign his contract tender from the Patriots and the Saints don’t submit a contract offer to Butler until two days before the 2017 NFL Draft, the pick forfeited would be a 2018 first round pick instead. NFL CBA Sect. 2(j)

So if the Saints instead lose a 2017 first round pick, would the Patriots receive the 11th overall pick or the 32nd overall pick in the draft as compensation?

The Patriots would receive the 11th overall pick. A team who refuses to match the contract of a new team in this situation receives the draft pick originally assigned to the new club (or a draft pick higher if that team no longer has the original draft pick assigned to them). That means if the Saints originally had the 32nd overall pick and then traded for the 11th, they would be giving up their 32nd pick and keep the 11th. Or, hypothetically, if Butler was a third-round tender and the Saints didn’t have a third round pick, they would be forced to forfeit their second round pick.

But because the Saints’ original assigned pick was the 11th overall selection, that would be the pick that is forfeited to the Patriots here.

So the Saints could send a contract offer to Butler, the Patriots could then match that contract, and then the Saints could trade a draft pick to the Patriots for Butler under the terms of his new contract, right?

Only if Malcolm Butler consents to the trade.

If the Saints submit a contract that is matched by the Patriots, the Patriots are prohibited from trading Butler to the Saints for one calendar year unless the player consents to the trade. Remember: Brandin Cooks was most likely not asked for his input before he was traded to the Patriots. In this situation, if the Saints submit a contract that is matched by the Patriots, the only way the Saints get him is if Butler himself allows it. That’s why his meeting with the Saints is so important.

Would the Saints be required to trade the pick they would forfeit to the Patriots in a trade for Butler once he consents?

Absolutely not. It would be like any other trade. They could trade the 32nd overall pick, a 2017 second round pick, or 2018 picks, or some combination that the Patriots are willing to accept at that point. The negotiations would be, essentially, starting from scratch.

But if the Patriots would get the 11th overall pick if they refused to match the contract offered by the Saints, why in the world would they accept less than that in a trade?

For one, the plan all along could have been for the Saints to trade the 32nd pick back to New England for Butler’s services once Butler signs his one-year contract. During that same time, the Saints would be discussing with Butler’s agent the terms of a multi-year extension (most likely containing a high signing bonus) to incentivize him to sign the one-year deal with the Patriots.

Another option would be if the Patriots prefer the 32nd overall pick this year as opposed to getting a first round pick in 2018. If the Saints and Butler decide to delay this process out until right before the 2017 NFL Draft, the Pats get a 2018 first instead of anything that helps them this upcoming season. They might prefer to get the 32nd pick this year over a draft pick to help when Tom Brady is another year older in 2018.

The last (and least likely) option would be for Butler to have privately told the Patriots and Saints that he has no intention of playing in New England no sooner than the required Week 10 deadline. He could tell the Patriots that if they don’t trade him (ideally to New Orleans where he knows a new contract awaits) he won’t sign their contract at all. This would likely be a bluff that the Patriots organization would see through - Butler would unlikely jeopardize his team’s success to that degree, potentially dampening the interest in the free agent market the next year.

So Butler could just refuse to sign his contract with the Patriots completely?

Yep. But he wouldn’t be allowed to play in the NFL in 2017 at all if he hasn’t signed by Week 10 of the 2017 regular season. Then next offseason we could be in this same situation all over again as the 2017 season where he didn’t play wouldn’t count toward a season of control by the Patriots.

So what is the most likely outcome for the Saints here?

The most likely outcome is that the Saints and Patriots originally discussed a trade of Malcolm Butler in a trade for Brandin Cooks, but because Butler had not signed his contract from the Patriots, he could not legally be traded. Butler then was refusing to sign his contract because he was waiting for agreeable terms on a multi-year deal (from either the Patriots or the Saints). If that’s the case, then now we’ll just wait for those terms to be reached and see if Butler finds his way to New Orleans in 2017.