First, he was considered by many to be an overpaid free-agent addition. Next, when tried to get back on track and silence those who doubted him, an injury cut short his season.
For cornerback Malcolm Butler, not much has gone according to plan since he signed that lucrative five-year deal two years ago. But this year the Tennessee Titans are getting a better return on their investment. Much better.
The 30-year-old said on Wednesday that he feels like he is playing some of his best football this season.
“I feel better, I feel like a better football player,” Butler said. “I feel like I have been playing better since I have been here, probably the best season I have had since I have been here. It’s just a mindset, getting comfortable with your environment, trusting your teammates, getting used to your coaches and things like that.”
The Titans’ secondary, which ranks in the bottom half of the league against the pass, has been slammed for its inconsistency this season.
Butler has started in all 11 games this season and has been on the field for at least 95 percent of defense’s snaps in all but one contest. But he has been a glowing bright spot, especially of late.
According to Pro Football Focus, he is the highest-graded cornerback in the league over the last five weeks with an 83.7 rating. Even more encouraging, Breon Borders, who has burst onto the scene this season for the Titans playing opposite Butler, is the fifth highest-graded corner with a rating of 77.1.
“We’re just believing in each other, man,” he said of the defensive improvements. “Going out there, keep playing hard and try to get better each and every week. We know things aren’t going to be perfect. You got great offense, great players in this league. You just have to play for each other, communicate each and every play like everyone just got to the team. I think that really helped us along the way, and I hope we continue to do things like that going forward.”
Butler has two interceptions this season, both of which helped shape the Titans’ 42-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 5. He also has accounted for 11 passes defended and 68 total tackles, already one shy of tying his career-high 69 in 2018.
It is a far cry from 2018, his first season in Tennessee, when his Pro Football Focus grade was a career-worst 67.1, and that was after his play improved significantly over the second half of the season. He was off to a better start in 2019 before a fractured wrist ended his season after nine games.
His play this fall has not gone unnoticed. Early in the process, he was second among AFC cornerbacks in the Pro Bowl fan vote.
Butler made two Pro Bowl appearances with New England (2015, 2016), where he spent the first four seasons of his NFL career and was a part of two Super Bowl victories. Famously, he sealed the Patriots’ triumph in Super Bowl XLIX with a goal-line interception against Seattle in the final seconds.
If he is going to return to one of those Bowls this year, his preference is clear.
“I have had a lot of ups and downs throughout my career, and I am glad to get it back on track,” Butler said. “Hopefully, I won’t be able to attend a Pro Bowl because the goal is to make it to the Super Bowl.”