FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) There was a time this offseason when it was unclear whether Malcolm Butler would be wearing a Patriots jersey when 2017 training camp began.
Yet there he was as New England opened camp Thursday, taking the field to the cheers of an overflow crowd as a two-time Super Bowl champion - member of a defense that returns 10 starters to one of the league's stingiest units in 2016.
He said later that he woke up for camp thinking about his humble beginnings as an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama in 2014.
"My college didn't have this many people at the games," Butler said. "So each year I came out here, the same thought came across my mind."
Part of the reason Butler may be in a sentimental mood is because he's also going through a mental reset after an offseason that didn't yield exactly everything he envisioned.
The hero of New England's Super Bowl win for the 2014 season with his game-saving interception against Seattle, Butler was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and had a career-high four interceptions last season.
He entered the offseason as a restricted free agent, but fully expected to be in line for a significant pay raise after playing three seasons on the bargain contract he signed in 2014.
His situation became murkier after New England signed free agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year contract.
Butler visited with New Orleans, but the Saints were unwilling to satisfy the first-round tender the Patriots placed on Butler. He eventually signed the one-year tender from New England worth $3.9 million. With no long-term payday this time around, he'll have his next opportunity as an unrestricted free agent in 2018.
It may not be all he wanted, but he insists he's only looking forward now.
"I was thinking this morning, 'Time waits on nobody,'" Butler said. "Fourth year already, so whatever you want to get done in life you better hop on it now."
That includes an opportunity to be part of a stacked secondary that replaced free agent departure Logan Ryan with a Pro Bowler in Gilmore, and returns Pro Bowler Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon.
Both soft-spoken guys off the field, Butler and Gilmore have been explosive forces on it over the past three seasons, combining for 17 interceptions. On paper they have the potential to be one of the AFC's best tandems at cornerback.
Like Butler, Gilmore is adopting a humble approach to getting acclimated to his new team. And the early impressions have been positive.
"I like how you have to prove yourself on this team. And make your own on this team," Gilmore said. "I know where I want to be. Just take it a day at a time."
If that sounds familiar, it's because that has been the approach Butler's lived by for three years in New England. He says he has welcomed Gilmore with open arms.
"In any relationship it takes time to build," Butler said. "Glad he's here. ... Actions speak louder than words, so we have our time to prove it."
NOTES: DE Rob Ninkovich was absent from practice on Thursday, with no explanation offered. ... LB Dont'a Hightower and DL Alan Branch are currently on the physically unable to performance list and did light conditioning on an adjacent practice field. ... The Patriots signed receiver WR Tony Washington and DE Caleb Kidder to get the roster up to the maximum 90 players.
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