For all that has been said about Malcolm Butler in the last week -- where he will play, what he will be paid next season, and what he could be paid beyond next season -- one thing we don't know right now is exactly how much he wants.
We may have an idea. He may want at least what Stephon Gilmore was paid. He may want more. If he wanted to guarantee himself some money so as not to risk injury in 2017, he may be willing to play for less than that.
What does Butler want? That will be key in determining where he plays next season.
If he's willing to take slightly less than top-of-the-market money in order to be paid one year before he hits unrestricted free agency, then he and the Saints could perhaps agree to a deal that would facilitate a trade. (An offer sheet, it seems, is off the table because the Saints will probably be unwilling to give their No. 11 overall pick to the Patriots and give him a long-term deal.)
If Butler won't settle for anything less than what Gilmore got, then he'll probably be disappointed. And he'll probably end up back in New England.
Even if the Saints are able to hang on to the No. 11 pick, dealing away No. 32 -- which they received from the Patriots in the Brandin Cooks trade -- may be too pricey for them if they're also going to have to pay Butler a huge sum of money on long-term deal as well. If the Patriots aren't willing to settle for a return that doesn't include a first-rounder, then a deal would be stonewalled.
In that situation, Butler would return for the Patriots, play on his first-round tender, and wait to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018.
New England Patriots
It seems unlikely now, but if Butler and the Saints can't agree to a deal that satisfies both of their needs, then it could happen. It's what former assistant to the Patriots coaching staff Mike Lombardi believes will happen.
"Doesn't make any sense" for the Saints to give up No. 11 and sign Butler to a high-priced deal, he told The Ringer's NFL Show. "At that pick, the Saints could draft a corner and end up having a cheaper player . . . We know for Malcolm Butler to get traded, it's going to have to be something less than that pick."
Lombardi added: "Why pay Malcolm Butler $13, $14 million a year, sign him to a long-term deal, and then have to turn around a draft pick when you're basically buying a 27-year-old player? You'd be better off drafting a young corner and hopefully developing him."
This year's draft class is one of the deepest in recent memory at the cornerback position so if the Saints hold on to both of their first-round picks, they could potentially get two immediate contributors to turn around their defense while Drew Brees remains one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
In order for them to give up a young, cost-effective player in the draft for Butler, the deal Butler agrees to would probably have to be somewhat affordable. Or at least less than top-of-the-market.
For Butler, that may not be enough.
"I think Malcolm Butler signs his tender, goes to New England, and puts the onus on New England," Lombardi said. "Play great. I'll make a huge deal next year. I'll be 28 next March, and then I'll make a huge deal on the open market. New England's not going to franchise him . . . "
"For me, the Saints are trying to improve their defense by cashing in Brandin Cooks to get more picks, and then they're going to use those picks to hopefully fix their defense."
That would mean no Butler in New Orleans. Which would mean -- unless other teams come along with an enticing offer for both Butler and the Patriots -- he'll be back in New England. As awkward as that might be.