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If Saints get first round pick for Brandin Cooks, flip it for Malcolm Butler

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The Saints need cornerbacks in the worst way. Could they work a trade for the New England Patriots’ top cover corner? A Q&A with @PatsCap helps sort out whether this is the right move.

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver Broncos
DENVER, CO - New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) surveys Sports Authority Field before kickoff against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints have had terrible luck with cornerbacks lately, having lost five of their top six on the depth chart by halftime of Week 2 last year. They had to start guys like Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb, and Ken Crawley up against the likes of Odell Beckham Jr, Julio Jones, and Amari Cooper. Predictably, it was a bloodbath.

Luckily, the Saints have gotten good looks at New England Patriots shutdown cornerback Malcolm Butler in shared training camp practices and preseason games each of the last two years, and they have a history of trading with the New England Patriots. Just two years ago, they swapped unproductive defensive lineman Akiem Hicks for backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who later signed a three-year extension with the Saints. One-time special teams returner Jalen Saunders was also shipped to New England for a conditional draft pick that failed to materialize.

Should the Saints accept a trade for wanderlust-struck wideout Brandin Cooks, they would likely receive a first round draft pick in return (the trade partner could be the Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles, or a dark horse team). If they succeed, the Saints should call up Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offer one of their two first round picks in exchange for young shutdown cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Butler (5-foot-11, 190-pounds, 27-years old this past Thursday) is a versatile cornerback who wins both in man and zone coverage, though he’s at his best standing off in his zone and giving opponents a brief second to give away their intentions in their route-running. Here’s what NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks had to say when he named Butler one of the NFL’s rising stars at cornerback before the 2016 season:

The "Junkyard Dog" of the Patriots' defense has emerged as one of the top cover corners in the NFL through two seasons. Butler is an ultra-competitive defender with the grit and toughness to battle elite receivers on the perimeter. He fights from snap to whistle and consistently finds a way to jump into the receiver's hip pocket down the field. Although his game is far from textbook and lacks polish, the former undrafted free-agent signee's determination and competitive spirit allow him to slow down some of the NFL's best receivers.

As Brooks explains, Butler is a fiery and competitive cornerback who can go toe-to-toe with the league’s top receivers. Butler went on to have a dynamic 2016 season that culminated in a comeback Super Bowl win against the hapless Atlanta Falcons, which all Saints fans should be thankful for.

If the Saints want to take inspiration from the neighboring New Orleans Pelicans and make a bold move, working out a trade for Butler is the way to do it. He’s a young player on the ascent to greatness who they could get in the prime years of his career. Butler has all the strengths that Dennis Allen looks for out of his defensive backs, and would give the Saints a legitimate playmaker with clean bill of health on the back end of their defense. It’s almost a match made for a movie.

However, there’s a counterargument that suggests the Saints would do better to keep their draft picks and go after a cornerback in free agency like Butler’s teammate, Logan Ryan. This more-conservative approach makes sense, and is advocated by Miguel of PatsCap.com, a devoted fan and salary capologist who has an encyclopedic knowledge of salary cap goings-on and how the Patriots operate. He’s well worth following on Twitter to get an informed look into how the model NFL team navigates the salary cap and roster decisions.

I interviewed Miguel on what may go into a possible Saints trade for Butler and which other options may be better for them. This interview was conducted before the franchise tag deadline, so some of it is slightly redundant. It would have been published sooner had the Saints kept last week more drama-free, but here we are.

1. First off, thanks again for agreeing to this brief Q&A. Malcolm Butler has been floated by some Saints fans as a possible trade target. You recently explained that we should expect Butler to be given the highest level of RFA tender. Belichick is said to have a price for every player, but given the history of trades between the two front offices, could you see the Patriots accepting a draft pick of lesser value in exchange for Butler's services? What would you consider appropriate compensation?

@PatsCap: I cannot see the Patriots accepting less than a 1st rounder for Butler. A 1st round pick for Butler is appropriate compensation since I consider him among the league’s top cornerbacks. There are other teams who may be willing to meet Butler’s price and also give up a first rounder. Other teams that may be interested in acquiring the Super Bowl hero are the Colts, Titans, Buccaneers, Lions, Raiders, and the Packers. I know that the Steelers have been floated as a possibility but I agree with Ian Whetstone’s take that the Steelers should be ruled out.

Belichick would love to get as high as possible a draft pick for Butler. Plus, the 11th pick is the first pick in the first round whose fifth-year option is not based on the transition tag. So the 5th year option for the 11th pick should be less than the 5th year option for the 10th pick if both players play the same position.

2. The Patriots have about twice as much projected cap space ($61.1-million, per OverTheCap.com) than the Saints ($29.5-million), but that's with 16 fewer players rostered for 2017. Big contributors like Logan Ryan, Dont'a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Martellus Bennett, and LeGarrette Blount are scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. Would possibly trading Butler make any of them staying in New England more likely, or is their status mutually exclusive?

@PatsCap: Only if the Patriots first franchise tag Ryan would a trade of Butler make his stay more likely. That is, a Butler trade would ensure that the Patriots would not withdraw their franchise tag. The gap between the Saints and the Patriots will be greatly reduced if the Patriots tag Dont’a Hightower.

3. Butler led the Patriots in passes intercepted (4) and broken up (16) last year, while Ryan was second in each category (2 picks, 11 breakups). Losing both starting cornerbacks in one offseason is a hard sell, so would the Saints be better-advised to pursue Ryan in free agency than commit a draft pick plus a new contract to Butler? Or does the gap in skill and productivity between them make such a pursuit worth it?

@PatsCap: Saints would be better off pursuing Logan Ryan and paying him as a top #2 cornerback and staying at 11. Then the Saints would have two players for around the same cost as Malcolm.

News broke not long after this article was written that the Patriots have indeed gotten into the bidding for Cooks, though the Saints declined New England’s offer. If it’s true that the Saints want a pick higher than 32nd overall in exchange for Cooks, maybe throwing in Malcolm Butler (who, like Cooks, is a soon-to-be free agent) along with that pick could be enough to change New Orleans’ decision-makers’ minds. Stay tuned.