Evaluating the Saints' Free Agent Acquisition of OLB Victor Butler

Will OsgoodAnalyst IApril 10, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 11: Quarterback Nick Foles #9 of the Philadelphia Eagles is sacked by Victor Butler #57 of the Dallas Cowboys during the third quarter in a game at Lincoln Financial Field on November 11, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Cowboys defeated the Eagles 38-23. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Evaluating the New Orleans Saints 2013 free-agent class is actually a fun task. Victor Butler is one of a handful of underrated players the team chose to sign to cap-friendly deals instead of trying to strike it big with one or two marquee-name players. 

The fun aspect of evaluating Butler came in seeing a player ready to take on a starting role, or at least a more participatory one, after playing a reserve role in Dallas for the first four seasons of his career. 

Like Keenan Lewis, who I evaluated earlier this offseason here, Butler played a limited role for his NFL team in his first professional contract before bursting onto the scene to some extent in his final season. 

Butler's contract is one that gives the team great financial flexibility and a player with high upside.

Jason La Canfora of cbssports.com reported at the time of Butler's signing that the two-year deal could be reduced to a one if Butler fails to meet certain playing time incentives. 

Butler shares one other similarity with Lewis. Both graduated from Oregon State in 2009. While synergy and chemistry between an outside linebacker and cornerback is relatively unimportant, it is possible the Saints' defense could benefit from the connection of Lewis and Butler. 

The other key that will benefit Butler, and thus the Saints, is the one he already had with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He told neworleanssaints.com: "I like Rob Ryan's system because he puts players in position to make big-time plays. ... That's what I like about him." 

After agreeing to the minimum, Butler confessed that all he wanted in free agency was "the chance to come in and compete."

With holdover DE/OLB types in Junior Galette and Martez Wilson on board, competition promises to be fierce at the outside linebacker spot once OTAs and camp commence. The Saints will likely still bring in a draft prospect to compete at the spot as well. 

Of greatest importance in regard to Butler is that he has been extremely productive in limited playing time as a professional. In four seasons Butler has played 803 defensive snaps (including 290 in 2012), according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

The average outside linebacker plays between 900 to 1,000 in one season. Yet look at Butler's statistical output in those 803 snaps.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         



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Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.comView Original Table
Generated 4/9/2013.

While the forced fumbles and ability to play in space against the pass are impressive—Butler does flash those abilities on film, no doubt—it is the sack number Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton and Rob Ryan hope translates, as those 803 snaps in four seasons turns into somewhere north of that in just one season.

Let’s just say Butler plays 900 defensive snaps for the Saints in 2013. A fair expectation would be for the Oregon State product to put up somewhere in the vicinity of 11 to 13 sacks. High expectations are new to Butler. Competing and winning are not.

Let’s go a step further, though, and evaluate Butler based on his abilities in the three key areas for an outside linebacker: pass rush, run defense and pass coverage. I used the All-22 film from the two games Butler played the most snaps in—week 4 vs. Chicago and week 6 vs. Baltimore.


Pass Rush

The No. 1 priority for any NFL outside linebacker is the ability to rush the passer. As the statistics indicate, Butler has a knack for doing just that. 

While Butler is not a tremendously quick athlete, he does a number of things well to make up for his overall lack of athleticism. First and foremost, he is excellent and disengaging pass-protectors with his hands. 

He uses a swim move regularly to get up the field. He also uses the dip and rip regularly. Both moves he uses to get the edge on an unassuming tackle. But he sets this move up with great hesitation and hip swivel prior to making the move. 

He uses all of these action points on this successful pass rush against Baltimore on a 3rd-and-long play. 

Butler is circled in red here. He is in a four-point stance ready to attack right tackle Kelechi Osemele and get to Joe Flacco. Notice that he is essentially playing a nine-technique with the idea being that he'll simply run around the slower Osemele. 

Unfortunately the pictures do not always tell the full story, but notice that Butler is in the process of making the swim move. Using his tremendously quick hands, he gets the Ravens' rookie to put his hands up, but in much too slow a manner. 

Butler is able to "swim" through to the edge. 

Again, with pictures it is nearly impossible to capture each element of the pass rush, but Butler is now in the process of attacking Flacco. Notice that he is "by" Osemele and does a wonderful job of ripping his inside shoulder through and maintaining outside leverage in relation to Flacco. 

The result is that Flacco cannot escape "out the back." Instead, Flacco tries to scramble but realizes he must throw on the run with Butler straight in his face. The result is a definite win for the Cowboys

This is a great "finish" by Butler, and illustrates some of the other things he does really well as a pass-rusher. First, he shows tremendous awareness in noticing that Flacco is about to throw on the run. He knows Flacco is not the kind of athlete who is going to fake Butler out of his shoes. 

Therefore, he can confidently throws his hands up and jump for the pass. This should also illustrate nice closing speed on the part of Butler. Though he does not have the same kind of burst of a player like LSU's Barkevious Mingo, he has closing speed and a nose for the quarterback that are nearly unrivaled. 

Butler is an effective pass-rusher not only because of his tremendous sack-to-snap ratio, but also because he creates pressure on a regular basis which makes life infinitely more difficult on opposing quarterbacks. 

If there are any complaints, or areas where Butler must improve as a pass-rusher, I'd point to his lack of a counter move to the speed rush. Rarely, if ever, does he dip back inside to take advantage of an overextended tackle. 

He is also prone to lose his one-on-one battle if the pass-protector stonewalls him on an initial bull-rush. He lacks the necessary strength to continue to push the blocker back, though the effort is present. 

Finally, there are times when Butler does not finish well in bringing the quarterback to the ground. He'll often try to arm tackle instead of breaking down and bringing the quarterback to the ground. 

 Grade: B+


Run Defense

Though pass-rushing is crucial to determining the success of an outside linebacker in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense, it is not the sole characteristic a player must display. Holding the edge and possessing the ability to slow opposing teams' running games is necessary as well. 

In all honesty, Butler is a slight liability in this phase of the game, but there are times when he shows great ability. He merely needs to exhibit more consistency against the run. Here is one of those flashes, also against Baltimore. 

The greatest thing of note in the pre-snap view of this play is that Baltimore is aligned in "the gun," meaning a pass is likely necessary. Butler is covered by a tight end, showing Baltimore that Butler could rush or play coverage. Of course, it's a run, so he's going to ultimately end up playing it that way. 

Because of the pre-snap gun alignment, and the fact that Flacco takes an initial drop, Butler is right to initially read pass and rush up the field to try to apply pressure to Flacco. As such, he takes an outside speed rush from the onset. 

Here we see, though, that he has quickly reacted and changed directions in next to no time. Of course, change of direction is a key skill for any pass-rusher, but also for an edge rusher against the run. 

We again see Butler's excellent change-of-direction ability as he has already worked upfield, back downfield to cut off Ray Rice and now back to the sideline to make sure Rice does not beat him to the outside. 

Two other key qualities are at play here. First, Butler shows great perseverance. He keeps fighting to maintain his assignment on the play. Second, his use of his hands plays a key role here, as he sheds the block of the bigger Osemele and is eventually able to take Rice down after just a one-yard gain. 

As a whole, Butler always shows great effort in the run game. Like in rushing the passer he can sometimes be taken advantage of because of his lack of strength. He chases plays down from behind well, but will also miss tackles.

The same traits that allow him to succeed as a pass-rusher allow him to experience success versus the run, while the same detractors in the former area contribute to struggles in the latter as well. 

Grade: C+

Pass Coverage

The Saints are not paying Butler, or any of their other outside 'backers to play pass coverage on a regular basis. But the ability to effectively drop from time to time is invaluable to Rob Ryan and his scheme. 

Here Butler is lined up over Chicago backup tight end Kellen Davis, as he was lined up over over the strong side all night versus the Bears. He is looking like a potential pass-rusher, but as he reads pass he will drop into an underneath zone. 

Though Butler is very much aware of Davis' locale, he is primarily concerned with reading the eyes of quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler has one of the quickest releases in the game, yet Butler will be able to make a play on this pass because of his quick recognition skills and instincts. He finds the football out of Cutler's hand and follows it into the awaiting arms of of Davis. 

It is nearly impossible to tell for sure if Butler actually got a hand on the pass or not. It is undeniable, though, that he disrupted the vision of Davis and thus was a key cause in the dropped pass. This is one of the several instances in which Butler shows a deftness for covering the pass. 

Grade: B



Though Butler is not yet himself an A+ player, Mickey Loomis' ability to bring him in for two years at $3 million is potentially the bargain of free agency and makes this an A+ signing. 

The value Butler figures to bring to the Saints' defense in 2013 and beyond makes the limited financial commitment actually seem unfair to Butler. But as he said, he just wants a chance to compete. It seems beyond likely that he will do that. 

It is more likely that Butler will compete, win a starting job and lead the Saints in sacks in 2013. 

Overall Grade: A+