While that question has never been decisively answered by coach Bill Belichick -- and is on the radar this week with the Patriots preparing to face Butler and the Tennessee Titans on Sunday -- how the team has moved forward in 2018 without Butler has been notable.
The cornerbacks have been solid, led by Stephon Gilmore, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level.
“I have a ton of respect for Stephon,” Belichick said Wednesday, when asked a question about the trust required to give a corner a challenging assignment. “He’s covered and played against a lot of guys in this league. He’s willing to do whatever you ask him to do.”
The Patriots have matched Gilmore up against some top receivers, with Belichick mentioning Gilmore as being in the same category as former Patriots Ty Law and Aqib Talib.
“That’s a great compliment,” Gilmore said. “But I just try to focus on each week, and we have Tennessee this week and they have some good players over there. So you have to really focus in and try to win your matchup and not let your team down.”
Gilmore hasn’t let anyone down (Belichick raved about him in his weekly plays of the week segment), playing 98 percent of the defensive snaps this season and credited with a team-high 12 passes defended. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, he has the ideal combination of size, physicality and speed to match up with different types of receivers, which is partly what enticed the Patriots to sign him to a five-year, $65 million deal as a free agent in March 2017.
Once the Patriots made that investment, it seemed clear that Butler’s time in New England would be coming to an end after the 2017 season, as he was also seeking a No. 1-corner type contract.
Gilmore said he still keeps in touch with Butler, mostly via text message.
“He’s a great person, great player, and I’m happy for him,” he relayed. “He’s a great brother. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
In Butler’s absence, the Patriots had initially turned to Eric Rowe to fill the No. 2 role, just as they did in the Super Bowl. But when Rowe hit a rocky stretch early in a Week 2 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 10-year veteran Jason McCourty -- the longtime Titan -- stepped in and has pretty much assumed the starting spot opposite Gilmore since (Rowe was later placed on injured reserve).
“He’s great, been in the league and making plays for a long time. So smart,” Gilmore said of McCourty, who has played 78 percent of the defensive snaps.
Third-year player Jonathan Jones has been the top option in the slot, with rookie J.C. Jackson (16 percent of the snaps) being mixed in at times on the outside. Rookie Keion Crossen, a seventh-round pick from Western Carolina, has played sparingly on defense while showing up more on special-teams units.
Overall, Gilmore sees progress from the group that has formed in the post-Butler era.
“I think we’re getting better and better every week,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. Just trying to communicate, play fast and feed off each other.”