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What role should we expect Percy Butler to take on in Washington’s defense?

With rookie Safety Percy Butler expected to be heavily involved in the defense in year one, where does his skillset best serve Washington’s defense?

The Commanders expect a lot from their safeties on a down-to-down basis, and nothing will change with the addition of rookie safety Percy Butler. The fourth-round draft pick provides some versatility in the secondary. Head Coach Ron Rivera said shortly after drafting Butler that he can compete at safety and Buffalo nickel, the slot defender in the big nickel sub-package. During that same time frame, General Manager Martin Mayhew said that the Commanders’ staff saw enough flashes of Butler last year that they believe he’s a guy who can develop into an outstanding player. Not to mention that Butler was a special teams ace at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, having over one thousand gradable ST snaps in his collegiate career.

The Commanders’ player evaluators have set the stage for Butler; now it is time to play ball. So what can we expect to see from Butler this season for the Commanders? I took a look at a few games of Butler’s and took a stab at projecting his fit best in Jack Del Rio’s defense.

As Rivera and Mayhew hinted in their early comments on Butler, his athletic ability raises the ceiling for him tremendously.

Butler possesses really good agility, explosion, and foot speed. Further, his change of direction and hip fluidity, which is not necessarily shown through test numbers themselves, is above average.

Starting with his speed, while Butler’s foot speed did show itself on film in the games that I watched, it was not as many instances as you would imagine for a 4.36 player. I would assume that coaches saw his explosion and blazing speed each time he lined up on special teams, where he flourished. However, it did flash in pursuit and closing quickness exposures.

In this example, Butler displays exceptional click-and-close ability from pre-snap to post-snap. South Alabama runs a misdirection pass, attempting to get the defense to flow to the offensive right side with a fake read-option handoff. A good trait for Safeties (among other defensive positions) is their ability to quickly and accurately locate the football on misdirections or simply “key and diagnose.”

Butler’s first step after the snap was a flow to the motion receiver out of the backfield, but once he recognizes (click) that receiver was a blocker, he explodes (close) off of his back foot. A glimpse into the potential that coaches saw in him as a defensive player, displaying solid play recognition, elite foot speed, and pursuit ability to make an excellent play behind the line of scrimmage.

Butler aligns in the post in another exposure of his foot speed and pursuit ability, ultimately becoming a backside run defender. At the snap, the Ragin’ Cajuns have a triangle coverage on the field side of the formation, and Butler’s responsibility is the deep third according to how he dropped. So he is not expected to make a play on the ball here, except that he does. Butler quickly closes the gap between him and the running back with pure speed and a solid angle, saving a potential touchdown.

In coverage, from pass breakups to his hands, Butler displayed an ability to make plays on the ball at the catch point.

It’s important to note that this was not an accurate pass for the tight end, who had the sideline on this play. At the snap, the Ragin’ Cajuns ran a bracket coverage on the WR1 and WR2, leaving Butler in the middle of the field, presumably covering the tight end. “Presumably” because if the linebackers were supposed to blitz as they did, Butler gave up too much ground, which gives a negative grade to his game and situational awareness.

However, if the linebackers failed to execute their assignment and did not zone drop to depth on this play as they potentially should have, Butler saved this play for the defense. It’s a complicated grey area here that only the coaches would be able to explain; we don’t know who truly is at fault. However, Butler’s closing speed and contest ability at the catch point are what you see here.

Again, this was a poorly thrown deep ball by the quarterback, but Butler made a play on the football. Playing a deep-third in Cover-3, Butler, with good eyes on the quarterback, executes a very good zone turn once he recognizes this is a pass play. He flipped his hips and quickly gained depth on his zone drop to be in an excellent position to make a play on any throw the quarterback made. Further, Butler showed his ball skills at the catch point, high-pointing the football, securing it with soft hands, and maintaining possession upon contact with the turf.

As we turn to Butler’s weaknesses, they aren’t detrimental to the point that coaches cannot trust him on the field. Instead, with good technical coaching and an increase in film study, learning from professionals on how to learn tendencies and trust what he’s seeing, he can become that true free safety that some people have already touted him to be before he’s played an NFL down.

As a Safety, it is essential to show patience given that you are the last line of defense, primarily playing on the third level of the field. However, for Butler, there were several instances when he hesitated to close on a player or the football. Instinctual plays separate the good and great NFL players from the average to below-average ones. Butler is playing more in the hook zone than the deep third on this double slant play. He has good situational awareness, understanding that Liberty, on this third and short, only needs a couple of yards. So Butler is aware that the ball will come out quickly, which eliminates the need for him to be deep. Butler read Malik Willis’s eyes well but hesitated on making a play on the slant. If he jumps the slant, it is possibly an interception, but luckily the pass was still incomplete.

Though there were not many exposures in the games that I watched, another potential coverage issue was his ability to read and recognize combination routes. Specifically, he displayed an adequate ability to diagnose the scissors concept (post/corner by two receivers on the same side of the offense). While this is one concept that I named, the NFL and its offensive coaches will have many more concepts to test Butler’s ability to diagnose route combinations.

Butler needs technical coaching to become a better tackler as a run defender. For example, in multiple run situations (on the perimeter and in the box), he overruns the ball carrier; this results from not breaking down and getting square, which is essential to getting runners down on all levels of football. He also played high, which mitigated any leverage and explosion he had at the point of contact. It’s not all terrible, though, Butler displays a solid ability to shed perimeter blockers and get into the action, and he also possesses the speed to stay clean and shoot gaps. So his run defense is a potentially evolving element of his game.

So what is Butler’s projection? With UL, he played in the box, post, and as a slot cornerback. As stated before, he has the athletic traits to thrive in the secondary, but how about his processing and reaction time? I understand the importance of the famous and overstated “Buffalo Nickel” package, but it all comes down to fit and what Del Rio wants to do. I believe Butler will see most of his snaps as a post player. With Landon Collins gone, for now, Kam Curl will likely see nearly every defensive snap in the box, given his skill set. The true versatile piece for this secondary is Bobby McCain, who had success as a slot cornerback and free safety. McCain is the piece you can move around. With his veteran experience, he can play at multiple alignments within a given game.

Putting too much on Butler coming out can slow his development. That is not to say he is incapable of learning a lot, but it is essential to start micro with rookies before expanding their role until they prove that they can handle more. While Butler has seen snaps at three different defensive positions, I, as it stands in June, don’t think that his frame, along with his tackling ability, is capable of being a box player right now. In the box, a team needs defenders, such as Collins or Curl, who are reliable and physical in the run game. Until Butler develops that edge, allow him to roam the intermediate and deep levels of the field where his athletic ability makes an actual difference instead of playing in a box.

Despite what coaches suggest through their media appearances about his versatility, I think they have already carved out a particular defensive role for Butler.

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