There has been concern expressed by some regarding the proposed trade of Malcolm Butler to the New Orleans Saints. For Saints fans, nightmares of former Patriots players such as Tebucky Jones and Brandon Browner still persist. Is Butler a good corner, or is he simply a product of a good scheme and great coach?
Coming off two very strong season for New England, he was a 1st team Pro Football Focus All-Pro in 2015 and a 2nd team All-Pro through the Associated Press. He’s tallied 31 pass deflections and 6 interceptions in that period and won a Super Bowl. No defensive back on the Saints roster can claim any of those numbers.
Ultimately, the truth whether Butler is the player we want (correction, need) him to be lies in his game footage and that is what we’re going to take a look at today. I’ve tried to select pieces from the past two seasons going against various wideouts. Another raised concern is the talent of receivers he faced wasn’t as strong as what the NFC South holds. In fact, he’s had three matchups with Antonio Brown alone in the past two years.
As I discussed with Nick Underhill of the Advocate last night while he is not a shut down corner, a la Darrelle Revis in his prime, he handled some of the better receivers in the league well and showed excellent technique on the outside. We’ll start with him against the Giants.
Malcolm Butler vs Sterling Shepard
Shepard was a rookie receiver last season for the Giants and finished second behind Michael Thomas in yards, touchdowns and receptions. This play is an example of a rookie getting outmatched by a veteran corner. Butler is going to show perfect coverage on this route by boxing out Shepard to the sideline. Here we don’t see New England utilizing the press, but releasing Butler into his shuffle to cover the outside route.
A common misconception on Butler is that he is a slower outside corner after he ran a 4.62 at his pro day. The Patriots clocked him at a 4.4 during their private workout, and it has remained a hidden attribute in Butler’s play. He moves well on the field.
Here is what Bill Belichick said about Butler when scouting him, “When we scouted him at West Alabama the information on him wasn’t accurate and somehow or other his times and kind of athleticism got lost in the shuffle as sort of a slower corner... He was one of those players and in order to sign him to our roster, we had to release somebody that we had already. ”
Not only does Butler stay stride for stride (through his shuffle and at the top of the route) with Sterling, but he displays what every cornerbacks coach teaches in camps: Body out the receiver and force him out of bounds. Even if the Giants make the perfect pass, Shepard is in no position to make a completion.
Malcolm Butler vs Odell Beckham Jr
Similar to the play above with Shepard, Butler now demonstrates his outside coverage abilities against one of the premier playmakers in the league in OBJ. Like against Shepard, Malcolm forces OBJ to the sidelines and boxes him out forcing him to adjust his route out of bounds. This is another example of a play that would have been incomplete even if either player caught the pass.
In this short in-route Butler is all kinds of problems for OBJ. While he does give up a reception (a 4 yard gain), Butler’s hard press at the line takes away all of Beckham’s momentum and prevents him from using his speed to catch the pass on the run and break away from the defender. In essence, Butler stops the receiver at the point of their cut and nullifies any yardage after catch potential.
For the Saints, this is critical. Too often big plays have been given up in crossing patters and in routes due to separation formed at the line of scrimmage. When most NFL level skill players get the ball in space they are at minimum going to get the first down. this plagued New Orleans throughout 2016 as they had one of the lowest 3rd down conversation rates of any defense (28th in league at 43.3%).
Malcolm Butler vs Antonio Brown
Depending on the opponent, Butler played one on one coverage on an island, or he had over the top safety help. The above video is an example of Butler covering Brown with an over the top safety. Together, they have bracket coverage on Brown, and as many AFC North fans will tell you that is not always enough.
At the top of the screen you can see Brown taking an inside slant move before breaking to the outside to try and find the empty space in the safety’s zone. Butler trails, and then appropriately drops underneath, to undercut the route knowing he has a safety over the top. While Butler doesn’t win every matchup with Brown (no current corner in the league does) he does show the correct technique on most plays.
Antonio Brown is not Butler’s responsibility on this play, as he has the outside receiver in coverage, but I chose this because he displays an attribute that has been missing in Saints corners (healthy ones) for some time: Situational awareness.
While many corners, especially rookies, will trail a receiver in man coverage through the entirety of their route, Butler trusts his speed and positioning to keep a watchful eye on the quarterback. Doing this allows him to break out of the route once he see Ben Roethlisberger is passing to Brown and attacks the zone to make a tackle. This prevents Brown from cutting up field where he still had space to run.
Malcolm Butler Coverage Sack
While this play might not look like much it shows what a good corner and good coverage from your defensive backs can bring you: A coverage sack. Carson Palmer is keying in one the two routes to his left side. He never progresses his reads as he’s expecting either the comeback route on the outside or the fly from the slot to pull away from the coverage. When they do not, he is forced into a sack.
Butler’s play isn’t perfect, and smaller shiftier receivers such as Brown from Pittsburgh did get the better of him sometimes. That can be said for most starting corners in the NFL. I was surprised by his speed and his hip transitions as many players who employ the shuffle technique over the backpedal (a staple of Bill and Saban) are generally known more for tight hips and lower athleticism.
A quick list of pros and cons from my film study:
Elite Press Move
Boxes out WRs on outside
Finds the ball (Peanut Punch/Pass Breakups)
Faster than expected
Doesn’t hesitate/studder step
Not the greatest run stopper
Gets caught in blocks, struggles to release
Adequate in zone, not elite as with man ability
Depending on the compensation, acquiring Butler gives the Saints an immediate upgrade, and starter, at cornerback. While I still advocate for drafting a CB in the NFL Draft, it is a position that generally takes one to two years to acclimate to. Players are bigger, faster and stronger than at the college level and corners usually take more time.
Last minute add-in: Talk about a strong press move