After a one-year hiatus from the NFL postseason, the New England Patriots returned to the playoffs in 2021 by virtue of a wild-card berth. The Patriots, however, were dismantled in the AFC Wild Card matchup against the division rival and AFC East champion Buffalo Bills.

In order for the Patriots to earn consecutive trips to the postseason, they will need an under-the-radar player to step up in 2022.  Roughly a month before NFL training camp begins, let’s examine who will be the Patriots’ X-factor for the upcoming NFL season.

Patriots X-Factor to Emerge in 2022 NFL Season: Malcolm Butler

It’s been quite the career journey for 32-year-old cornerback Malcolm Butler. As an undrafted rookie in 2014, he played in just 16.8 percent of the defensive snaps during the regular season. However, he emerged as the hero of the Patriots’ thrilling victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX with a game-saving interception at the goal line.

Butler became a star over the next two seasons, earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2015 and a Second-team All-Pro selection in 2016. Butler registered career bests in passes defensed (17) and interceptions (four) during the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning 2016 season.

His first go-around with the Patriots came to a stunning halt following the 2017 season, as he was benched in Super Bowl LII. Butler did not play a single defensive snap in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Butler left New England in the offseason, agreeing to a five-year, $61 million ($30 million guaranteed) pact with the Tennessee Titans. After three underwhelming seasons with the Titans, Butler was cut in March 2021. He signed a contract with the Arizona Cardinals later that month, but retired last August due to personal reasons..

After a year off from football, Butler un-retired and rejoined the Patriots on a two-year contract. Butler’s services in New England are needed more than ever, following the free agency departure of J.C. Jackson (Los Angeles Chargers) in the offseason.

With Jackson out of the picture, Butler has a legitimate chance to start at cornerback for the Patriots this season. In his age-32 season, can Butler help stabilize the Patriots’ secondary? According to the two-time Super Bowl champion, it’s on him to prove he can still play at the level he did in his first New England stint.

Are you 1000% an NFL fan?

🚨 Get viral NFL graphics, memes, rumors and trending sports news delivered right to your inbox with the Clutch newsletter.

*Sign up now and receive your own one-of-a-kind ClutchPoints photoshop with yourself and your favorite player!

Head coach Bill Belichick believes that Butler looks the same in practice as he did when he coached him from 2014-17.

That comment could have been ‘coach-speak’ by Belichick. Or, perhaps Butler really is a rejuvenated man after a year away from the game. Butler has the opportunity to seize a starting spot this season, and in the process, demonstrate he is still the player he once was. Given the Patriots’ question marks in the secondary, Butler has materialized into an unlikely X-factor for the club in 2022.