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Free agency gambit begins today for Malcolm Butler, Patriots
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Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler could now become a major acquisition target.

It would take an extremely rare move for a competitor to swipe Butler from the Pats, but 31 teams can begin giving him offer sheets when free agency begins today at 4 p.m. However, as a restricted free agent with a first-round tender, a rival team would have to be willing to send the Patriots their 2017 first-round pick draft for Butler’s services. Such a first-round tender takeaway hasn’t happened since 2003 when the Redskins gave the Jets a first-rounder for wide receiver Laveranues Coles.

But this is a unique market. The salary cap soared to $167 million for the 2017 season, and it has increased by $24 million over the last two years and by $44 million over the past four years.

The Patriots have benefited from that cap explosion, as their $51 million in space (including yesterday’s Dwayne Allen trade) is the ninth-most in the NFL. But they clearly aren’t the only franchise with plenty of working capital. There are 22 other teams with at least $20 million in cap room, including 16 with at least $30 million to spend. Any team can conceivably afford to hit Butler with a big-money deal and hope the cap-conscious Pats decline to match it.

The question is how much it would take to corral Butler. High-end cornerback contracts slot somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million annually, but Butler’s value almost certainly isn’t that high because of the required draft-pick compensation. It would make sense for the Patriots to match anything around $10 million in average annual value, but would they extend themselves to $11 million or $12 million? They might prefer the first-round pick.

It’s also conceivable the Patriots are happy to allow an opponent to do their negotiating for them in a game of chicken, banking on the notion that a team would be interested in offering Butler no more than $8 million annually.

The Pats would be ecstatic if a scenario presented itself in which they could keep Butler under contract for something along the lines of $40 million over five seasons. Then again, it’s questionable whether a rival would give Butler an offer that would allow the Patriots a chance to keep him over the long haul on team-friendly terms. It’s all part of the chess match. And remember, the Patriots have Butler on the books for $3.91 million in 2017 under his current deal.

Because this is considered a strong draft for cornerbacks, it might be unrealistic to think a team in the top 20 would fork over its first-rounder for Butler, especially to Bill Belichick. Cornerback needy AFC rivals who might have more motivation to buy in and hurt the Pats by subtraction, include the Dolphins (No. 22 pick; $40 million in cap space), Raiders (No. 24; 42 million), Texans (No. 25; $23 million) and Steelers (No. 31; $20 million).

Given the teams’ strong administrative ties to Belichick, it’s unlikely the Texans, Lions or Falcons would want to get involved, even though all three have cap space and a late first-rounder to sacrifice for Butler.

So that leaves the Dolphins, Raiders and Steelers as real threats. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has clearly enjoyed trying to rile up Belichick over the years, and the Pats agreed to an offer sheet with then-Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders when he was a restricted free agent in 2013. Sanders stayed with the Steelers, but it’s part of the rivalry’s history.

Further, it would make sense for potential suitors to prioritize the talented class of unrestricted free agent cornerbacks before working back to Butler. A.J. Bouye is the headliner with Logan Ryan and Stephon Gilmore close behind, while second-tier options include Prince Amukamara, Morris Claiborne, Dre Kirkpatrick and Brandon Flowers.

Until the Patriots sign Butler to an extension, assuming that’s the end game, they must be on alert for the vultures, who can begin circling today.

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