Butler wipes the slate clean with move to Tennessee Titans

Published 12:09 am Sunday, June 24, 2018

Malcolm Butler’s season ended in heartbreak. Benched for all but one play — a punt in the first half — he  watched from the sideline as his team lost the Super Bowl to the Philadelphia Eagles.

When the final whistle blew announcing the end of the 2017-18 NFL season, one of the most important periods in Butler’s life began as he became an unrestricted free agent after four seasons with the New England Patriots.

The end of the season, and his benching in the Super Bowl, all but closed the door on him returning to New England and for the first time since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Butler had his choice of where to play.

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The Vicksburg native made his choice in mid-March when he decided to sign a reported five-year, $60 million contract with the Tennessee Titans, making him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league.

“It was pretty weird. It was different. I didn’t get drafted so that was my draft day. It was great. I made the right decision and I am glad to be where I’m at. It is what it is. Just work hard and play hard,” Butler said of the free agency process. “It is close to home, they are an upcoming team, they have young talent and I think I can contribute to the team as long as I work hard and be a great teammate. I just felt like that was good for me.”

Butler recently completed minicamp with the Titans and will start his first training camp in Tennessee on July 27. In between, he found time to visit Vicksburg last week for the groundbreaking of the Sports Force Park on the Mississippi. He’ll return July 14 to host his annual youth football camp at his alma mater Vicksburg High School.

“It means a lot,” Butler said of attending the groundbreaking. “All I can think about is envisioning myself being an elementary kid or junior high and knowing I have this in my city. It is something that every city deserves and every youth deserves. Of course it is going to build more athletes and it is a great thing. I am glad to be a part of it and that something big is coming to the city to help the youth out.”

When he arrives at training camp, Butler will have to learn a new playbook and prove to the Titans, the league and himself that he was worth the big contract after an up and down final season in New England.

Butler started 54 of 55 games for the Patriots before the Super Bowl and helped the team win two championships. He was a second-team All-Pro in 2016 and has eight career interceptions. He struggled some in 2017, however, and did not start an early-season game at New Orleans.

“They (the Titans) have been great. I had to transition from one team to another, but that is going well,” Butler said. “I am working hard and just doing anything to help my team out and help myself out to become a better man, a better person and a better dad.”

Entering his fifth training camp, Butler said he has a simple goal of, “Be better at everything I am not good at. I am always motivated so I will be ready to go and it will be a show.”

The Titans have used draft picks and spent millions of dollars in remaking the secondary under general manager Jon Robinson over the past three offseasons, and Butler’s signing was the latest move toward that end.

Tennessee selected All-Pro safety Kevin Byard with the first pick of the third round in the 2016 draft and cornerback Adoree Jackson with the 18th selection overall in 2017. Cornerback Logan Ryan was a top addition as a free agent in 2017, followed by Butler this past spring. Ryan and Butler were both signed away from New England.

Add in safety Johnathan Cyprien, another free agent addition, and it’s a group that wants to set the tone for the defense on the field.

“That’s all talk right now,” Byard told the Associated Press at the Titans’ minicamp. “At the end of the day, we’re going out here, we have the opportunity to actually be on the field right now and work with each other, and get the communication down, learn the defense, and going against a tough receiver crew in the Titans. That’s what we’re doing every single day. We know what we’re chasing, but this is all talk right now. We have to go to work.”

Tennessee has room for improvement. The Titans ranked 25th against the pass, giving up 239.3 yards per game. They tied for 18th with 12 interceptions thanks to Byard tied for the NFL-high with eight. Four other Titans each had an interception apiece, and only LeShaun Sims and Tye Smith remain on the roster with Byard.

Jackson was one of just two rookies in the NFL to start every game at cornerback, and only Tyrann Mathieu of Arizona played more snaps (1,261) than Jackson (1,260). But the cornerback who had five interceptions as a junior at Southern California before leaving early for the NFL still is looking for his first pick as a pro.

Ryan intercepted 13 passes over his first four seasons in the NFL with the Patriots. That earned him a three-year deal with the Titans in 2017, but he went all season without picking off a pass for the first time in his career. Butler has eight interceptions over his past three seasons.

“I’m pretty sure they’ll bump that number up from zero this year,” Butler said of Ryan and Jackson. “Everyone wants the ball. We’ve just got to play hard and just play as a team and everything will work itself out.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.