While everyone is talking Super Bowl right now, I've decided to take a different approach. I'm already thinking ahead to NFL Free Agency (begins March, 12th).
My goal was to find an underrated free agent who could be a substantial value for a needy team, while having breakout potential. My hope is to do this for several positions as we near free agency. Today, I decided to research a player that could improve a teams pass rush. I came up with Dallas Cowboy free agent Victor Butler (OLB), who will turn 26 just before the 2013 preseason.
Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images
The Cowboys drafted Butler in the 4th round (110 overall) out of Oregon State in the 2009 NFL Draft. Despite only becoming a full-time starter his senior year (12 sacks, 4 forced fumbles), Butler finished his collegiate career with 26 sacks (2nd in Beaver history). His 26 total sacks rank sixth in the PAC-12, since the year 2000. He was also voted team captain his senior year.
AP Photo/Dean Hare
If you look up Butler's many draft profiles, you will see the word "tweener" come up a lot. He was viewed as to big (6'2", 248lbs) for a 4-3 outside linebacker and a bit small for a defensive end (his college position). Despite the dreaded "tweener" label, most scouts agreed that he possessed good pass rushing skills and could find a role as a situational pass rusher.
Dallas ended up drafting him to play outside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. Many in Dallas, expected Butler to challenge Anthony Spencer for the starting job opposite DeMarcus Ware. In the end, Butler couldn't unseat Spencer, who has made great strides the last two seasons. Both Spencer and Butler will be unrestricted free agents this off-season.
Here are the statistics Butler accumulated while backing up both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer the last four seasons:
63 games played
89 tackles (69 solo)
5 forced fumbles
2 recovered fumbles
4 passes defended
I'll admit, those statistics are nothing special on the surface. I decided to break down Butler's stats a little further by using information gathered by profootballfocus.com. Here's what I found:
Snap counts, QB hits and hurries gathered from ProFootballFocus, Sacks by NFL.com.
Year by year, his total snap counts have gradually increased. Much of the increase is a result of filling in when Ware or Spencer have been dinged up, plus some situational roles.
When looking at Bulter's stats, be aware that starting outside linebackers (both 3-4 and 4-3) routinely have 800 or more snaps per season. It you look at his career numbers, it's basically what a full season of production might look like for Butler (which are very impressive from that perspective). The other number to pay close attention to, is passing snap percentage. Butler was not just a pass rushing specialist for the Cowboys. Since 57% of his total snaps were during passing downs, that means 43% of the time he was on the field during running plays. In fact, according to ProFootballFocus (PFF), Butler is a good run defender and has improved every season since he has been in the league.
Here are the overall run defense ratings (grade) Butler has received from PFF the last fours seasons:
2009 = -1.7
2010 = 0.3
2011 = 1.7
2012 = 6.1
You can see the clear improvement since 2009. While his snaps per season make this a small sample, I believe it shows he is capable of learning and that he won't be a liability in run defense. One other aspect of Butler's game that I like is that he is a sure tackler - only 5 missed tackles (per PFF) during his first four years.
Out of pure curiosity, I wanted to compare Butler's career pass rush statistics to the 2012 season of DeMarcus Ware. Here is how he stacks up:
This is where I get very excited for what Butler could become (if given an opportunity to start in the right scheme). Notice that Ware actually had more snaps this year than Butler has in his career. While Ware has more QB hits, Butler is almost identical in sacks and hurries. Butler is also rushing the passer at a slightly lower rate.
So, I am saying that Victor Butler could become as great as DeMarcus Ware? No. What I'm saying, is that there is a very productive pass rusher here, that might breakout if given a starting opportunity.
Photo: Edward A. Ornelas, Express-News
As I mentioned early, both Butler and Spencer are unrestricted free agents. That begs the question, as to why I think Dallas would even let Butler walk when they could probably save significant money signing him over Spencer.
First, along with the signing of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin comes a likely shift to a Tampa 2 style defense that utilizes a 4-3 front.
Here are two stories indicating the scheme change:
ESPN Dallas piece
Since Butler is a so-called "tweener", Dallas may want to take a more traditional approach at OLB (smaller/faster) and DE (bigger/stronger). On the surface that wouldn't include Butler, granted I can't read Monte Kiffin's mind.
The other reason I don't think Bulter will be back with the Cowboys, is due to statements coming from folks who cover Dallas sports.
Here are some recent qoutes:
1/10/13 - Calvin Watkins (Quote here): In referense to Butler's time in Dallas, "The Cowboys needed more plays out of Victor Butler"
12/31/12 - Todd Archer (Quote Here): In reference to Butler's free agent status, "Can be a situational pass rusher, but not an every down player."
11/27/12 - Jean-Jacques Taylor (Quote here): In reference to Butler's production, "Yet another unproductive draft pick."
It's completely possible that Monte Kiffin sees something in Butler that he likes and puts in a word for resigning him. It's also possible, that Jerry Jones has seen enough and won't bother trying to resign him.
Here are some teams who have cap room, need to improve their pass rush, and in my opinion should at least give Butler a look this off-season:
- COLTS (46M in cap space): The Colts are still rebuilding on defense and in 2012 they starting running a 3-4 scheme. With Dwight Freeney becoming an unrestricted free agent and both Robert Mathis and Jerry Hughes struggling this season, the Colts could use an OLB who is familiar with the scheme. They have a ton of cap space and need to bring in younger players at the linebacker position. At the very least, Butler would add depth and should instantly compete for playing time.
- JAGUARS (22.1M in cap space): The Jags run a 4-3 scheme, but with new Head Coach Gus Bradley (former Seattle DC) running the show, I could see them getting creative on defense like the Seahawks. Bradley hired Bob Babich to be his defensive coordinator, but I believe Bradley will dictate much of what the defense does. Will Bradley utilize a "Leo" position in the Jags defense? If so, Butler could play the Chris Clemons role. Remember, Bradley has been running a hybrid 4-3 that utilizes 3-4 style personnel. (More info on "Leo" position)
- BILLS (20.6M in cap space): The Bills recently hired Mike Pettine to take over their defense. As defensive coordinator for the Jets, Pettine ran a 3-4 defense. That said, he has not committed to one style of defense for the Bills. Recently, he stated, "We are a multiple front, multiple coverage defense." (See more).
The Bills have spent a lot of resources (money and draft picks) on their defensive line over the years. Outside of Nick Barnett (who will be 33 by pre-season), it's safe to say that linebacker is a weak link on this team. Ten year veteran OLB Bryan Scott will be a free agent and has given them no reason to bring him back. It just makes good sense for the Bills to consider Victor Butler.
- SEAHAWKS (18.6M in cap space): Seattle is possibly one piece away from taking the next step. It's no secret they have been lacking in pass rush over the years (more info here). With star defensive end Chris Clemons going down with a torn ACL (just 8 days ago), Seattle is in an even worse position now. Clemons (31 years old) will most likely not be ready for the regular season and 1st round pick Bruce Irvin doesn't seem prepared to assume the full time "LEO" role.
Also, it doesn't hurt that Pete Carroll coached against Butler at USC and knows exactly what he is capable of. Seattle is not afraid to take chances, especially on a "situational pass rusher." Clemons himself was tagged a "situational pass rusher," but in three seasons with Seattle (in a starting role), he has posted no less than 11 sacks each year.
- EAGLES (5.2M in cap space): The Eagles are the long shot of this group. They don't have as much cap room and still haven't hired a defensive coordinator to work with new Head Coach Chip Kelly. Also, he is not set on any one defensive scheme. That said, the Eagles struggled this season to generate a consistent pass rush and are in full rebuild mode. Like Carroll, Chip Kelly is familiar with Victor Butler since he faced him while coaching at Oregon. Kelly may not have any NFL experience at this point, but his knowledge of current and former college players could come in handy when signing free agents (veteran or undrafted).
** Update - Eagles hired Billy Davis as defensive coordinator. It looks like they will run a hybrid 4-3 (Click here for more info). Bulter would still be a good fit for this style of defense.
Thanks for following my blog. I will get back on the Super Bowl wagon with my next blog.