Malcolm Butler

New England Patriots defensive back Malcolm Butler during an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini) ORG XMIT: FBO10

Winslow Townson

A little more than a year ago, word broke that the Saints had serious interest in acquiring Josh Norman.

After being given the franchise tag, the Carolina Panthers made a surprising move by releasing the cornerback, setting off a flurry of events that almost brought the cornerback to New Orleans.

Despite Sean Payton’s pursuit of Norman, which came 331 days ago, he ultimately decided to sign with Washington. It was fun to think about, and it didn't seem like a huge loss at the time. The Saints were supposed to be deep at cornerback. But injuries struck. Slowly, over the next several months, the group thinned, until Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, B.W. Webb and De’Vante Harris were left standing at the end.

It’s hard not to wonder how things might look if things turned out differently. Would the Saints have won more games? Would Norman have intercepted the pass against the Giants that turned into the winning score? Would that have changed momentum? Would New Orleans only be a pass rusher away from a stout defense?

We’ll never know. But the Saints now could add another top cornerback with Malcolm Butler now available in some form or fashion.

The first avenue of acquisition isn’t all that attractive. It would involve New Orleans signing Butler, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet and sending the 11th pick to the New England Patriots as compensation. The second way would be to reach an agreement with Butler on a long-term deal and then working out a trade with the Patriots, likely centering on the 32nd overall pick, which was acquired from New England in the Brandin Cooks’ trade, or perhaps something involving the Saints’ second- and third-round picks.

Even though Butler visited New Orleans recently and met with members of the organization, it’s always possible this transaction falls apart, and the idea of Butler becoming part of the defense devolved into anything more than a fever dream. But it’s hard not to get swept up in those snippets and let them develop into fully-formed images.

And when that happens, it’s hard to see anything but positives and excitement.

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Let’s start at the top. After charting and taking notes on every play ran against the Patriots last season, The Advocate determined Butler was targeted in coverage 84 times. He directly allowed 44 receptions for 655 yards, intercepted four passes, broke up another 12, and surrendered four touchdowns (three other plays totaling 50 yards might have been Butler’s responsibility, but it’s impossible to determine without knowing the assignments).

Those numbers equate to a quarterback rating of 74. Another way to look at it: Opposing quarterbacks turned into Brock Osweiler (72.2 rating) when throwing at Butler last year. For the sake of comparison, New Orleans allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 98.8 passer rating last season, which is like facing a slightly more productive version of Kirk Cousins (97.2) every week.

The rating is already great, but if you removed the outlier game of Butler’s season when he allowed seven completions on seven targets for 119 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the New York Jets, the rating drops to 58. That might be goosing the stats too much, but that was the only game when he allowed more than 100 yards. Considering he allowed 40 or fewer yards in 10 contests, and did not surrender a catch and had two interceptions in a second meeting with the Jets, that game appears to be an aberration.

So, we know he's good. The question is how and where Butler fits into the defense.

It’s notable that he did not often cover bigger receivers. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, he only matched up on A.J. Green (6-foot-4) a couple of times. Butler was targeted once while in coverage of Green and broke a pass in the end zone on a fade route. He also broke up a fade on a 2-point conversion attempt to Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor (6-4). However, he lost on a fade route against New York’s Brandon Marshall (6-4). He also only matched up with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald (6-3) twice in Week 1.

It’s hard to know if the 5-11 Butler was kept off bigger receivers because he struggles against them or if the Patriots simply allowed Logan Ryan to handle those duties because he does well against big guys.

If it’s the former, it shouldn’t be a major problem. The Saints have Delvin Breaux (6-1) on the roster, and he’s done well against the NFC South’s bigger receivers like Atlanta’s Julio Jones (6-3), Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin (6-5) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (6-5). Butler could then handle one of the receivers without extensive help from a safety and hold his own. He did cover Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown almost exclusively in a regular-season matchup. And while he allowed a 51-yard gain on a slant, he only gave up five receptions on 10 targets with an interception, which is a win against a player of Brown's caliber.

Butler should be able to play in any system. He was at his best in man coverage at the line last year, where he allowed 24 receptions on 50 targets for 468 yards. And it should be noted that number is inflated by three receptions, including the 51-yard slant to Brown. Two others were on out-and-up routes to Los Angeles’ Kenny Britt (66 yards) and Arizona’s Michael Floyd (39 yards).

The cornerback also is adept at playing zone, and one of his best plays came last season against Pittsburgh when he passed off Brown, picked up Xavier Grimble and nearly intercepted a pass. That same awareness shows up all over Butler’s video, as he has the awareness to peel off his coverage and help his teammates. Two of his interceptions came while in coverage of other players, and many of his pass breakups came when trailing a player in pursuit.

His tackling ability is another strength. Often, when he gives up a catch, there is very little gained after the catch since he’s often in good position, which is another credit to his coverage ability.

Those skills, paired with Breaux’s, would give the Saints two corners who could, more often than not, handle their assignments without needing a lot of safety help. The combination would also allow defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to be more aggressive with his coverages and, with their ability to press, disrupt the timing of opposing offenses.

It’s easy to see how acquiring Butler would improve this team. There’s still a lot that has to happen – if it happens at all – for this to become a reality. But it’s hard not to sit back and imagine how a talent like Butler would improve this defense.

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​