by: John Tomase on Fri, 03/17/2017 - 11:38am

Malcolm Butler has given the Patriots plenty of reasons to celebrate. (James Lang/USA Today Sports)The Patriots do not fear letting their players hit the free agent market. Go find an offer, they say. See what's out there. Then come back to us.

Julian Edelman didn't find anything to his liking after visiting Cleveland, Baltimore, and San Francisco in 2014, so he returned for four years and $17 million. He might be the biggest bargain in the league.

Safety Devin McCourty reportedly left money on the table to return to New England in March of 2015, signing for five years and $47.5 million. The Jags, Giants, and Eagles reportedly wanted the Pro Bowler, but he chose to stay in Foxboro.

Most recently, linebacker Dont'a Hightower visited the Jets and Steelers before agreeing to a four-year, $43.5 million contract with the Patriots that makes him the second-highest paid inside linebacker in the league.

Sometimes the approach doesn't work. Wes Welker got low-balled and bolted for Denver. (The Patriots, it turned out, were wise to let him leave.) Denver also swiped cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency, though his loss led to the acquisition of Darrelle Revis, which led to another Super Bowl. On a lesser level, the Pats wanted to keep defensive lineman Akiem Hicks last winter, but he signed a two-year deal with the Bears.

And this brings us to Malcolm Butler. Momentum seems to be building -- if it's not already an unstoppable avalanche -- that Butler is gone, about to be signed-and-traded to the Saints to effectively complete the Brandin Cooks trade of last week and return New England's first-rounder in the upcoming draft.

The Patriots' discipline in free agency is admirable and one of the bedrocks upon which their dynasty is built, but in this particular case, it's mystifying that they're choosing to move on from the best corner they've developed, all things considered, maybe ever. (Mike Haynes, Ty Law, Ray Clayborn, Asante Samuel -- those guys arrived, to varying degrees, with expectations of potential Pro Bowls. Butler? No one would've noticed if the undrafted free agent had been cut at the end of his first training camp.)

Butler is the perfect Patriot -- tough, hardnosed, humble, relentless. Hearing some critics contend he's "too small" to match up with the bigger receivers the Pats will face next season is comical. Does Malcolm Butler, in any way, play small? Of course not.

And yet it has seemingly been a fait accompli since the start of free agency that if Butler received an offer, he'd be gone. No talk of the Pats matching it. No possibility of striking a long-term deal before allowing the restricted free agent to reach this point of no return.

And the obvious question is … why? By the time you read this, Butler might already be en route to New Orleans, and in fairness, maybe the Saints plan to blow him away with an offer on par with the $13 million annually the Pats just committed to former Bills corner Stephon Gilmore, a player with nowhere near Butler's resume.

But if New Orleans ends up signing Butler for $9 million-$10 million a year, it's fair to ask why the Patriots didn't simply match. That total seems more than fair for a player of Butler's caliber, and it's enough of a discount to account for the fact that he's not an unrestricted free agent. Isn't that a win for the Patriots? They keep one of the best corners in the league at a price that doesn't break the bank. The 32nd pick feels like a small price to pay. (Of course, it's likely Butler never signs an offer sheet, since New Orleans wouldn't want to risk losing the No. 11 pick as compensation, and instead prefers to complete a sign-and-trade. The point remains the same: pay him what New Orleans is willing to pay him.)

"But Butler has no leverage!" some will say. Really? An offer from the Saints that's going to make him rich and is forcing the Patriots' hands isn't leverage?

"Well, his inexperienced agent is screwing him!" others will retort, and my answer to them would be the same as above.

"He's making unreasonable demands!" goes a third argument, and this one's problematic, because as an undrafted free agent who has saved a Super Bowl and made a Pro Bowl, Butler is particularly underpaid. He may not have much leverage as a restricted free agent who has been offered a first-round tender of $3.91 million by the Patriots, but he's got a little, and he's using it. More power to him.

Look at it this way: the Saints probably aren't making him an unrestricted-level offer, because they must include the value of the first-round pick they'll surrender in their calculations. Butler would easily match Gilmore's $40 million guaranteed in unrestricted free agency. What if he only gets $25 million in this deal? Wouldn't that be a win for the Patriots, even if they're paying him a year early? They've got tons of cap space now, and it would save them money in the long-term and keep a homegrown star right where he ought to be.

Butler has done everything asked of him and delivered more value than perhaps any player in franchise history. What's wrong with using the Saints offer to reward him?