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90 players in 90 days: Defensive tackle Vernon Butler

Last year’s big free-agent addition has a lot to prove in order to earn his keep this year

Buffalo Bills Training Camp Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

In the spring of 2020, the Buffalo Bills and general manager Brandon Beane went about revamping their defensive line. Choosing to do so via the free-agent market, Buffalo spent a whopping $58.9 million on three contracts. The return on investment with those contracts has not gone as expected.

Of those three free agents signed last offseason, one has already been released (Quinton Jefferson), another (Mario Addison) watched the Bills draft two edge rushers, and a third had his contract reworked this offseason.

In today’s installment of “90 players in 90 days,” we’ll discuss that third player.

Name: Vernon Butler

Number: 94

Position: DT

Height/Weight: 6’4” 330 lbs

Age: 27 (28 on 6/14/2022)

Experience/Draft: 6; selected by the Carolina Panthers in the first round (No. 30 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft

College: Louisiana Tech

Acquired: Signed with Bills on 3/27/2020

Financial situation (per Spotrac): Butler signed a two-year deal worth a total of $15 million last offseason. In March of this year, he took a straight pay cut of $2 million to stay with Buffalo. For this season, Butler carries a cap hit of $5,305,870 with a dead-cap charge of $3.5 million if the Bills choose to release him.

2020 Recap: Butler was expected to rotate as both a three-tech and a one-tech behind Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei last season; however, Lotulelei’s July decision to opt out of the 2020 season meant that Butler played more snaps than anticipated. He also had to play as the one-tech, which isn’t his strongest spot along the line—in spite of his frame, Butler has done most of his damage as a three-tech or a five-tech defensive end—so Butler struggled to make an impact in his first year in Buffalo. Playing 40 percent of the defensive snaps, Butler totaled 18 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, two quarterback hits, one forced fumble, and one pass knockdown over 14 regular-season games. He started all three of Buffalo’s playoff games, accounting for three tackles and one quarterback hit.

Positional outlook: Butler finds himself among a revamped defensive line group, although many of the strictly interior linemen remain the same. Buffalo has Ed Oliver, Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, Brandin Bryant, and Justin Zimmer returning, with Eli Ankou and Treyvon Hester added to the group. Some of Buffalo’s edge rushers, like rookies Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. and second-year man A.J. Epenesa, may also kick inside in pass-rushing situations.

2021 Offseason: Butler is healthy and participating in practice thus far. He left the team’s August 7 practice early after taking a blow to the head.

2021 Season outlook: Early on, I thought that Buffalo’s restructure of Butler’s contract all but ensured his presence on the 2021 roster in spite of his lethargic performance last year. However, as the edge rusher group continues to impress, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to make a roster where all of my preferred edge players make it. If the Bills keep ten defensive linemen, which is more than they usually keep, and Butler is among them, it’s reasonable to argue that Butler would be the worst of the bunch in any configuration. That doesn’t bode well for a guy with a top-15 cap number on the team. The Bills really have two choices: Are they bound to Butler thanks to his salary, meaning that either Harrison Phillips or Justin Zimmer is gone? Or do they think it’s worth it to carry Butler’s $3.5 million dead number plus the cap hit for one of the aforementioned players, which adds up to approximately Butler’s actual cap number at $5.3 million? Brandon Beane has shown an aversion to accumulating dead money ever since he purged the roster of Doug Whaley’s players, but this may be a situation where we start to see him make some moves that go against that philosophy. While I think it’s likely that Butler is on the opening day roster, I am not as convinced as I was a few months ago.