Vernon Butler’s career arc with the Carolina Panthers nestled him within the role of Shaq Lawson. A disappointing first-round pick who started to show flashes of promise at the end of his rookie contract—but not enough for his original team to re-sign him. When the Buffalo Bills signed Butler last year around this time I noted that I thought he had plenty of physical tools, versatility, and enough technique to be a really intriguing addition. The lack of consistent production worried me. So, in retrospect, were the Bills able to tap into Butler’s best this past season?
If you’re looking at 2020 stats for Vernon Butler you’re gonna be disappointed. With 18 total tackles, five tackles for a loss (TFLs), two QB hits, and no sacks he fell short of the mark the Bills were hoping for. In 2019 he had seven TFLs, six sacks, and eight QB hits. He was a rotational piece for both teams. However, not all of the fault lies on Butler’s shoulders.
The Bills had Butler do a ton of different stuff, including plays like this where he’s hanging back to prevent the big gain. His lateral speed means he’s got Kyler Murray covered in two lanes in case of a scramble, and has a shot at tipping the pass.
Not knowing much about Butler I did ponder if there was perhaps a motivation issue in Carolina. After watching him in a Bills uniform I’d like to put that to rest. Dude has a MOTOR. On this snap he starts off high in his stance and doesn’t get much push. He breaks right off and Murray probably feels lucky he was tackled before Butler got there.
Butler deals with a lot of double teams. The shot to his side sealed this as a negative play for Butler. The initial contact looks to be a draw, but after the hit he gets pushed back.
Let’s get to some positives. Butler isn’t trying to win a shoving match. He pops the arm up and breaks free and starts moving so fast it looks like Mason Cole (#52) is caught off guard. He gets a late pop in, which Butler survives well. Murray gets the pass off...barely.
Here’s another look at a double team without the pop from the side. He holds up relatively well. He’s pushed back but that’s hardly a rare outcome in this situation. Butler finishes strong, ripping Cole away to get in on the tackle.
Butler does his best work on the finesse side of things. He doesn’t collapse this play, but there’s a compact swim to get past the hook I highlight in the GIF. That and some speed get him to the pile to help close things off for the running back. There’s no leg churning getting through that pile, and Butler’s presence is a big help.
I’ve downplayed Butler’s strength and ability to push a good deal already. I’m not intending to say he can’t push. What I will say though is that when he does it’s plays like this one. The technique is excellent. Anything short of flawless technique though and Butler’s ability to drive forward falls off.
You should know by now I like to end on a high note. Butler looks more like a defensive end than a defensive tackle here. He even times his hands well to disrupt the attempt to catch him.
Overall I’m betting I like Vernon Butler way more than most analysts. I am however unsure how the Buffalo Bills can best take advantage of his skillset. I came away from Vernon Butler film night thinking that his tool kit is far better suited to defensive end than tackle (hence my final play selection). His best attributes are agility, speed, and more finesse-based skills. He struggled to collapse the middle of the pocket, but did hold his ground relatively well on double teams. As such, to me Vernon Butler is a bit of an enigma.
He wouldn’t be the first big man at defensive end. Heck, the Bills even put him there once in a while. To illustrate why I’m left scratching my head though, let’s compare to other big man edge players. J.J. Watt is listed at 288 lbs. Buffalo’s prior super big man to also wear 94, Mario Williams tipped the scales at around 300 lbs. Vernon Butler is reportedly 330 lbs. You read that right. Now go watch Play 4 and Play 8 again.
Vernon Butler has plenty of talent though I think based on his 2020 results it’s a bit of a disappointing season. Part of that disappointment might be not being able to put him in the best position for success. Admittedly he’s a tough puzzle piece to add to the picture. If the call were mine to make would he stay in Buffalo? I love the idea of Butler as a sub-package player on obvious passing downs. I wouldn’t consider him a lock, but he’s the type of player where the wheels should be turning.
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